Reflections of a Non-Talmid

It was not the small number of personal interactions with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l that made the greatest impression upon me. To be sure, I could detect greatness, humility, lomdus. But I wasn’t around them long enough for them to change who I was.

It was not even some of his remarkable writing – although I certainly gained from it. His piece arguing for the existence of a morality dwelling outside of Torah texts continues to be the platform of discussion of the subject, which ever side you are on. His long monograph comparing and contrasting arguments for and against secular study remains the seminal modern treatment of the subject. (Scrupulously fair, in my reading he does a better job explaining the latter than the former.) The honesty of a Tradition article a few years ago blew me away. It asks painful questions (and provides no answers) as to whether our romanticized views of marriage and intimacy are really consistent with Torah texts, or the product of our desire to be PC. Even more important to me was his response in a Jewish Action forum about reasons for belief. (Genius that he was, his honesty made him forego an … Read More >>


Kavah M’or Eineinu

by Yitzchak Etshalom

The light of our eyes has been extinguished. This was the anguished phrase that kept repeating in my head all morning, since waking to the awful tidings of the untimely passing of Moreinu Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l.

“Rav Aharon” will be remembered from many angles, from a multitude of perspectives, by students, Talmidim (those aren’t the same), colleagues, neighbors and co-builders of the magnificent institutions that bear his imprimatur. I am not equal to the task and would prefer the silence of Aharon to the words for Aharon, but a talmid’s obligation is to internalize what his Rebbe has taught him. R. Aharon taught us many, many things, some from the sanctified texts on our shelves, many from arcane texts we never encountered before and, here and there, a few from those lines of Dostoevsky, Spenser and Milton that only he could weave into a Shiur on Avot d’Rabbi Natan or Ramban al haTorah. But he taught us much, much more with the sheer force of his majestic humility.

There is a simple Mishnah (ahh, we thought that such things existed before R. Aharon showed us how wrong we were…) in Avot that speaks … Read More >>

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l

By Hillel Goldberg

Last Monday morning at the close of davening I received a call from my son, in tears, who told me that Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein had passed away. I told my son about his teacher what his teacher had told me about my father 43 years ago: Blessed is the Judge of Truth, Baruch Dayan Emet. It is one thing to utter that phrase to someone who has lost a loved one. It is something else entirely for someone to utter that phrase to you as you are steeped in grief and shock about the loss of your own father.

And a close rebbe, or Torah teacher, is, says the Torah, like a father. So the circle closes: I had to tell my son about his teacher, who was also his father, what my teacher, who was also my father, told me on that terrible day in 1972 when I learned about the death of my father.

This phrase, Blessed is the Judge of Truth, will have been uttered, by the time this appears, thousands and probably tens of thousands of times, for that was the reach of Rav Lichtenstein. He had thousands of disciples/sons, gathered unself-consciously … Read More >>

Happy Birthday to a Great Country: Haaretz vs. the Meshech Chochmah

I still don’t understand why my friends at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles urged me some time ago to attend a small reception for Avi Shavit and his then-current book, My Promised Land. Even one of my colleagues on this blog recommended going to the reception. The book had succeeded in generating much discussion. Its author, a veteran Haaretz journalist, was amply credentialed to write an update on the Jewish State, its successes, failures, and challenges. In person, he demonstrated that he knew his material, and was personally engaging, fair-minded, and accessible. At the time, participating seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

Over the next months, I slowly read the book. Then I changed my mind.

My Promised Land reads like a tell-all expose – for a nation, rather than an individual. Shavit takes aim at a slew of impressions we grew up with about the vastly outnumbered innocent good guys prevailing over the demonic bad guys. He destroys their innocence – and ours. People liked the book for one of two reasons. Critics of Israel loved it for exposing the warts, bursting the bubbles, and taking Israel down a few notches, gleefully using the material … 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 >>

A Foreign Fire

Last night was the yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing, of Rav Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg zt”l, my wife’s grandfather. The Hertzbergs were amazing people — they took Holocaust refugees into their homes, treated them like children, and helped them go on to lead productive lives here in America. Someone pointed out to me not long ago that as a result of their efforts, there are hundreds of sincere, active Jews in Baltimore and beyond who otherwise would have been lost.

As the Rav of his shul, Rabbi Dovid Katz shlit”a, pointed out last night, Rav Hertzberg would also speak truth to power. He was fired from rabbinic posts for being too honest — until a group of devoted followers created a synagogue, named for his father Avraham zt”l, and set him up as their Rabbi.

At a time when it was extremely unpopular to do so, Rav Hertzberg drew lessons like this one, from this week’s Torah reading. It refers to Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon the High Priest, who went outside what G-d had commanded — and were killed as a result. Reading the passage, one could think that it was a cruel or capricious … Read More >>

Children Surviving Divorce

by David Mandel

Polio, Tuberculosis, Cancer – each word elicits stark images of masses yearning for ‎a better day. And for each, better days would come. Sanitariums closed in the early 20th Century, Iron Lungs were mothballed in the mid- 20th Century, and today, Cancer research‎ is extending life and the quality of life for millions worldwide.

It may appear jarring to include divorce in the same body of discussion. After all, personal suffering from a life-threatening medical condition can be greatly traumatic and immediately consequential.Nevertheless, emotional trauma has proven to equate with physical trauma as research in recent battlefield conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown. Children in this generation of high conflict divorce ‎suffer greatly emotionally due to their parents’ selfish feud and will require significantly more support than any pharmaceutical can prescribe.

Consider two scenarios.

A 35 year-old father of three children seeks my advice. He and his wife have decided to divorce. He would like to discuss a path that will cause the least amount of disruption and emotional upheaval for his children. I laud him and his wife for their unselfishness and parenting maturity. We explore various options that include their … Read More >>

Challenges to Tranquility

An article of mine about dealing with change appears in a new periodical, “InSight,” published by Rabbi Avraham Mifsud of Detroit. You can read the piece here.

Same Sex Marriage, Polygamy and Sharia Law: Some Thoughts

By Michael J. Broyde

The first step to planning for the future is predicting the likely challenges: Same sex marriage is here, allowing religiously based discrimination is proposed as part of the solution and the very fabric of our secular society is changing. What should we be planning for and what are the challenges?

The always thoughtful Robert J. Avrech, in the most recent issue of Jewish Action (Spring 2012, page 6) makes the following claim:

Homosexual marriage is front and center as Hollywood’s most urgent social movement. But government-endorsed homosexual marriage will inevitably lead to the legalization of Islamic polygamous marriages, which is a straight line to the sharia law—ironically, a mortal threat to homosexuals who are cruelly and systematically persecuted, tortured and murdered under Islamic law.

This paragraph makes a number of important claims, all of which are important in our community deciding upon a course of action. He may be correct that Hollywood’s embrace of gay marriage will ultimately lead to the script ending in a place that will not make liberal writers happy. It might turn out that Islamists will somehow take advantage of the changes in American thinking, and slip in a few … Read More >>

The Seder Is A Mother

The Forward published an essay I wrote about the “maternal” essence of the Pesach Seder. You can read it here.

Dew-ey Wins!: Tal, Explained

While ancients waxed poetic about dew, most of us city folk only think about it when it fogs our windshields early in the morning. That changes, of course, on the first day of Pesach when we sing its praises in Tefilas Tal and ask HKBH that it should always descend as a blessing.

Determining what that blessing is, however, can be challenging. If you thought that dew – the condensation of water vapor on cooler surfaces – provides plants with water in much the same way as rain does, think again – at least according to contemporary authorities. Tanach and the siddur had much more positive things to say about dew than today’s botanists. The customary wisdom for many years was that dew might provide potable water for survivalists, but did nothing for plants. To the contrary, they claimed. Plants did not and could not assimilate the dew-moisture, while it did promote the growth of plant diseases! In the familiar refrain le-brachah v’lo le-kelalah, we had the latter part figured out, but were clueless about the former.

The Torah, of course, makes no mistakes. There has to be a berachah in tal, even if we don’t understand it. … Read More >>

Askanim For Hire?

We need look no further than the parshah we just read to find evidence of the potential for abuse of power. The Netziv takes note of the pasuk (Vayikra 4:22) dealing with the chet of the Nasi. He asks why the word beshgagah / unintentionally is left dangling till the end. Should it not have immediately modified the action of the Nasi? He concludes that the pasuk can/should be read as: When a ruler sins and commits one of the sins that ordinarily we would not expect to be done by anyone even unintentionally….

Such is the power of leadership and authority. Where there is too little, there is anarchy and too much room for the reign of personal subjectivity. Where there is a surfeit of authority, there is room for abuse.

Such abuse can be intentional, but it can be just as potent when unintentional – or someplace in between. For various reasons, parts of the Torah world moved in recent decades to a preference for tighter control by a smaller number of people, often at a great distance from their geographical location, and hence lacking a hands-on awareness of their special circumstances. Some found comfort in this, … Read More >>

Yosef Huttler, z”l

Rabbi Yosef Huttler, Cross-Currents’ poet laureate, took his artistry to a more discriminating audience when he entered the Yeshiva Shel Maaloh a few days ago.

I knew Yossi over a long period of time, beginning with the time he learned Yoreh Deah in our beis medrash. I saw him develop the different facets of his personality: rov, attorney, husband, father, and, in the last few years, long-suffering patient. I saw and appreciated his keen discernment, his understated genius, and his enormous emunah.

I loved his poetry, which would have been sufficient reason to publish it. Yet, there was more to it than that. Rav Herzog, zt”l, explained why the Torah sees itself as shirah, song (Devarim 31:19). Generally, only a physicist can appreciated an esoteric presentation of cutting-edge physics. A dentist might enjoy a good chidush in dentistry; a zookeeper can catch the interest of another zookeeper. People outside particular disciplines will not ordinarily get excited about conversation in those fields.

Music, R. Herzog observed, is different. It speaks a universal language; it has instant appeal to everyone. So does Torah, he said. Everyone can enjoy it, without special preparation.

Interestingly, the word shirah does not only … Read More >>

Pesach Shiur Now Available

A bit more somber than usual. We live in somber times. May Hashem soon bring the geulah we so desperately long for.

Some thoughts on magid from R. Hutner, RSRH, R. Soloveitchik, and the new Beis Shaar.

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.

The Politics of Adar

The masses were exuberant; champagne bubbling over, shouts of victory and pride, emotions bursting forth with confidence and joyous affirmation of a smashing success. Triumph and euphoria filled the air. But the morning after, fear and trepidation gripped the celebrants, the glee and sense of security dissipating in a fleeting moment.

The ebullience of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic reelection victory soured and fizzled as the White House responded with a snub and startlingly declared the following day that the United States’ (favorable) policy toward the State of Israel pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be reassessed, reflecting an unprecedented blow. Israeli politicians and supporters went scrambling in a damage control effort to salvage the favor and grace of the State’s most powerful ally.

The irony does not stop with the unparalleled White House affront toward a world leader, and the potential pulling of the rug out from under Israeli security concerns, allowing a lone and tiny allied country to be diplomatically devoured by the pack of wolves that constitutes much of the international community vis a vis the State of Israel at the United Nations. The irony cuts much deeper, to the point of the incredulous.

… Read More >>

Finance Minister Moshe Gafni

Dror Feuer, in Globes Magazine of 1/31/15, writes (my translation):

I think I have a good idea for this country: a Charedi Finance Minister. I am utterly serious. I suggest that in any government that may arise, under any constellation and any coalition pieced together, a Charedi Finance Minister should be appointed. I’ll try to convince you why.

But first, I would ask the non-Charedim among you to admit that you chafed at this. The first thing that came to your head, and if not the first then the third, is that a Charedi Finance Minister will steal all the money and give it to Yeshivos, because that’s how they are. Maybe this even comes fully packaged with a visual image. No need to paint it for you, right? You’ve seen this image a million times, you know the type.

Don’t be frightened, this happens to everyone involuntarily, I would almost say naturally. We’ve always wanted to be like all the other nations, no? So here. Anti-Semitism has always been part of the deal. When you think about it, in a world of PC identity politics, sector sensitivities and commando forces on Facebook, the only group in Israel … Read More >>

Rabbi Riskin and Female Halachic Adjudicators: It Does Not Compute

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s ambitious program to fill Israeli society with female halachic adjudicators just experienced a significant advance, as R. Riskin appointed a woman, Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, to the position of Mahniga Ruhanit (Spiritual Leader) in his city of Efrat. R. Riskin explained that Dr. Rosenfeld will render halachic rulings on questions posed to her, and that there is no bar to women serving as rabbinic judges:

Her sponsor, Rabbi Riskin was very clear about the validity of this role. “The only reason why women cannot be judges is if they are not accepted by the people. When it is clear they are accepted and have halachic knowledge, they can render halachic decisions,” says Rabbi Riskin.

As such, R. Riskin has founded the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership, which aims to create a cohort of female halachic leaders, trained and certified as follows:

Morot Hora’ah: Five-year program training women in the classic rabbinic curriculum of Kashrut, Shabbat, Family Purity, Mourning, and Marriage. This training is complemented by an extensive curriculum of philosophical, social, and psychological training for communal leadership.

Completion of the course and success in written tests leads to Heter Hora’ah – the centuries-old … Read More >>

The Differences We Make

In Baltimore’s Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, in whose yeshivah gedolah I was fortunate to study in the 1970s, the custom was that each beis medrash bachur would learn during night seder with a high school-age boy. I enjoyed the experience and it probably set me on a path to become a mechanech, in which role I was privileged to serve for nearly two decades.

At least one of my night-seder chavrusos, as it happened, followed me into the field of Jewish education, becoming, as I learned years later, the principal of a middle school in New England and then of a Bais Yaakov in Rockland County, the position he currently occupies.

I had only seen him once since our youths, when I was a rebbi and principal in Providence, Rhode Island, where he had brought a group of students from his school there for a Shabbos. That, though, was more than twenty-five years ago, and so it was a special pleasure to find myself at a meeting not long ago that, as it happened, took place in his home. It was an even greater pleasure to hear what he told me when he took me aside before the meeting began.

… Read More >>

Sounding the Shofar in Adar

“The days of the elections draw nigh,” explained Maran Rosh HaYeshiva [Harav Steinman] Shlit”a, with tears on his cheek. “A person might make petty calculations and miss the moment. He can act correctly, spur others to action, and vote only in order to save Yiddishkeit from those who seek its harm, and to save his household. And that is his duty; that is the mission of the moment. But each person can have in mind that he is going out to make His great Name great. He can think that he is joining a huge community that votes for the sake of the honor of Heaven, the masses who refuse to kneel before the Baal, who do not want a government that wishes to uproot the kingship of Hashem, and they vote for the sake of His Name, with love. By way of a small act and a great thought, one can attain a moment that has none to surpass it, to cause ‘His great Name to be made great and sanctified.’”

Yes, casting a vote has a pragmatic aspect to it. But on a much higher plane, it is an uplifting declarative moment of unswerving loyalty to Hashem. … 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.

Lichovod Purim

An article I wrote about how Purim is a celebration of how Divine irony vanquishes mortal iron, appears in the Forward today. You can read it here.

Learning from our Past, Building our Future (Part 2):

How Jewish History teaches us to create a positive community for tomorrow

by Leslie Ginsparg Klein

Generations of Jews have grappled with the same issues that face our Jewish community today. Their experiences provide us with suggestions as to how we can create a positive Jewish community today and ensure the commitment of our children. Colonials Jews provided us with two suggestions: education and infrastructure. Two important innovators from the early twentieth century, Sarah Schenirer and Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, give us two more answers.

EDUCATION In late 19th and early 20th century Europe, the Orthodox community found itself losing its youth in shocking numbers. While both boys and girls assimilated, girls were leaving Orthodoxy in even greater proportions. Some members of the community, including an unknown seamstress who would go on to become one of the most famous personages in Jewish history, identified the cause as a lack of quality Jewish education.

In the decades before the founding of Bais Yaakov, the movement for Jewish education for girls, parents not only allowed their daughters to attend Polish elementary schools and high schools beyond the requisite years, but many encouraged the girls’ intellectual pursuits. Some wealthy Orthodox … Read More >>

Friends, Foes, and Charvona

When the afterglow fades, we will still be left with plenty to daven for on Purim. Why, then, do we act so stupidly when help is proffered?

Many of us, this writer included, thought that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress was moving, inspiring, and effectively spoke to American hearts as much as to Jewish ones. (Apparently some Arab and Iranian ones as well.) We hope that, BEH, he may have had some impact, although the initial reactions lined up according to predictable political and ideological positions. However optimistic we may be, at the end of the day we are still somewhat short of an appearance by Moshiach.

Anti-Semitism is skyrocketing. Jews are leaving Europe in droves, caught between a resurgent right and a steady torrent of Jew-hatred piously chanted in thousands of mosques and madrassas and spread through television and social media . BDS campaigns poison the minds of a next generation of leadership. Jihadists urge the faithful to exterminate the Jews, and we are told to take comfort in the Pew finding that only 22% of the Muslim world supports them. (That is more than the total population of the Axis powers before WWII.) Iran … Read More >>