Unpublished Heroes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 >>

Vive la Différence

When MK David Rotem, of the Yisrael Beytenu party, said that the Reform movement is “another Jewish religion,” and then added that the Charedim [which Times of Israel translates as "ultra-Orthodox," but I have little doubt that he used the correct and less inflammatory term "charedim"] could “of course” be considered “also another Jewish religion,” one thing happened: Reform leaders exploded, and got him to “walk back” his remarks.

If you read carefully, he may not have expressed himself well, but there is no significant change between what he said to Army Radio that got him into hot water, and in his “clarification.” What he said the first time was “the Reform are all Jews,” which, given the level of participation by non-Jewish partners in services, we know to be a substantial exaggeration. In his “clarification,” he said “I have never said belonging to the Reform movement makes anyone less Jewish.” Both times, he expressed a completely normative halachic position.

Here’s what didn’t happen: any similar uproar from the chareidim, the “ultra-Orthodox.” No fellow MKs berated him, whether in the plenary, committee room, or outside in the halls. No gedolim released proclamations or contacted the press. His … Read More >>

Phyllis Chesler Supports W4W?

Women For the Wall seems to have caught a leading member of WOW being too honest once again. Phyllis Chesler was a founder of WOW and now is part of the “Original WOW” that refuses to permit peace in the traditional women’s section. Yet here’s what she said on WOW’s Facebook Wall:

WOW Board knows that it has driven away many Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshipers by their religious practices, non-stop desire for media attention, their willingness to criticize Israel in North America and Europe during the years of the Al Aqsa Intifada.

I wonder what those who said WOW just wants to pray in their own style and don’t want media are saying now. Other than “oh no, she told the truth!”

Yes, Facebook is a time killer. But sometimes you catch important news…

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 …

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 >>

The Real Story?

by Steven Pruzansky

The controversy du jour deals with the high school girls and their tefillin, and it has prompted the usual litany of responses. Once again, what passes for psak in the Modern Orthodox world is little more than cherry-picking the sources to find the single, even strained, interpretation of a rabbinic opinion in order to permit what it wants to permit or prohibit what it wants to prohibit. The preponderance of poskim or the consensus in the Torah world matters little; fables – like Rashi’s daughters wearing tefillin – carry more weight.

No honest reading of the sources could ever give rise to a statement such as “Ramaz would be happy to allow any female student who wants to observe the mitzvah of tefillin to do so.” Happy? Tell it to the Rema or to the Aruch Hashulchan. And what about the prohibition of lo titgodedu ­– of not having contradictory practices in the same minyan (e.g., some girls wearing tefillin and others not)? And what of the statement being made to the traditional girls – that their service of G-d must somehow be inferior to that of their peers who are on a “higher” … Read More >>

The Road to Heil

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

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

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

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

Obama and the Orthodox, Revisited

In a recent article in HaAretz, reprinted here on Cross-Currents, Rabbi Avi Shafran offered several explanations why there seems to be an Orthodox “animus” against President Obama. He discounts theories like racism and Obama’s social liberalism before arriving at the one he prefers: a lack of hakaras hatov — gratitude.

I have always greatly respected Rabbi Shafran and his writing, and consider him a personal mentor. And I think it is unquestionably true that some people have made “over the top,” irrational criticisms — not that I feel that these reactions are unique to the Orthodox Jewish community, or unique to our current president. But on balance, I think Rabbi Shafran must revisit not only that social liberalism, but the very areas in which he feels our thanks are due, in order to understand why there is so much negativity about the Obama presidency from Orthodox Jews.

Here’s what I wrote about Obama’s election, in November 2008:

I believe that getting America to the point of electing a black President was one of America’s finest hours.Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, November 12.

He beat me to it, as I was going to make a similar comment. … Read More >>

Aggravated Journalism

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

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

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

Obama and the (Orthodox) Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storied Lives

I used to have a chavrusah, or study partner, with whom I learned Torah annually.

Yes, annually.

Usually for about an hour or two.

In a different city each year.

The text we studied was rather complex and challenging – the exquisitely concise (and often exquisitely confounding) glosses of the 18th-century Torah luminary known as the Vilna Gaon to the Shulchan Aruch’s section on the laws of mikva’os, or ritual baths. That complex material was a major focus of my study-partner’s analysis for many years. I was just “tagging along.” Once a year.

The reason for the infrequency of that study partnership was that my partner, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg – a formidable Torah scholar, writer and the editor of the Intermountain Jewish News – lives in Denver, and I reside in New York. We would meet, though, each year at a gathering of Jewish journalists sponsored by an organization that held its annual get-together in one of various cities across the country.

When Reb Hillel would arrive at the convention hotel, one of the first things he would do was to contact me to arrange a good time to sit and study a bit. I well recall … Read More >>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 >>

Where Are The Red Carpets?

The letter below appears in today’s (Jan 2) New York Times:

To the Editor:

I’m neither an “Israel right or wrong” person nor a supporter of what has come to be called “the Palestinian cause.” But one question keeps coming back to me when I read about objections to decisions by Jewish campus groups not to invite speakers hostile to Israel: Where is the push for Arab campus groups to roll out their red carpets to unabashed defenders of the Jewish state?

(Rabbi) AVI SHAFRAN New York, Dec. 30, 2013

The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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 …

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 >>

Can the Reform Movement Stanch the Bleeding?

At the United Reform Jewry’s recent biennial gathering in San Diego, the mood was gloomy. “Reform Judaism tries for a ‘reboot’ in face of daunting challenges,” read the Jewish Telegraph Agency report. “Reform Movement, Seeking to Stem Decline, Eyes Religious Pluralism in Israel,” proclaimed the Forward headline.

Only the even more astonishing hemorrhaging of the Conservative Movement has obscured the decline of Reform movement. Until recently, Jews asked about their religious affiliation tended to use “Reform” as a synonym for “minimal.” So the numbers of Reform Jews appeared to be holding steady or even growing. No more. In the recent Pew study, the fastest growing segment of American Jewry consisted of those responding “None” when asked their religious identity.

The median age of Reform members is 54 years old, and only 17% of members say that they attend religious services even once a month. President of UJR, Rich Jacobs, lamented at the bicentennial that 80% of the movement’s youth are gone by the time they graduate high school. Even at the Reform convention, the area of the hall marked for those in their 20s and 30s was, according to the Forward, notably compact. Those who did attend were primarily … 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


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 >>

The Fact of the Matter

Several weeks ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Detroit (well, Oak Park, a suburb, and a solvent one), where two of our daughters and their husbands and their children live.

Oak Park, and Southfield, which abuts it, are home to a wonderful, vibrant and multifaceted Orthodox Jewish community. The two neighboring cities, within walking distance of each other, boast (figuratively speaking; the residents are a modest bunch) an abundance of shuls and shteiblach, a large and flourishing yeshiva and Bais Yaakov, a yeshiva gedola, a Kollel – and all the requisite kosher shopping and dining amenities to boot. And housing, to put nice icing on a scrumptious cake, is extremely affordable.

One of the cake’s delectable ingredients is a “Partners in Torah” night of study that takes place each Tuesday night at Beth Yehudah, the local yeshiva, where Jews of all stripes learn Torah for an hour with study-partners from the Orthodox community. Hundreds of pairs of men, on one side of a large room, and women on the other, delve into Jewish texts together. It’s an inspiring sight (and sound).

Our recent trip, though, didn’t include a Tuesday, so we missed that weekly event. … 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 …

The Peril of Pluralism

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

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

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

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

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

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 >>

So, You Thought It Would Never Happen?

A private business owner in Seattle has been told that he will face fines and penalties if he refuses to bake “wedding” cakes for deviant couples in violation of his religious faith. If it’s “racist” to discriminate against deviant couples having a “wedding,” then it’s wrong for a Rabbi to refuse to marry them, as well.

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 >>