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 >>


In Judaism, Love Doesn’t Always Win

In their rejoicing over the recent Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision, various Jewish groups grievously misrepresented Judaism. An essay of mine about the Jewish religious tradition’s true take on homosexuality and the formalization of same-sex unions appears in Haaretz, at

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.663962

You may have to register to access the piece (registration is free). But the paper does not permit me to post the piece here.

I have some further thoughts about the recent decision, and hope to share them here soon.

Rabbi Weiss: Please Don’t Confuse Form with Substance

Winds of secession are in the air. Rabbi Avi Weiss and his disciple, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, yesterday announced their immediate resignation from the Rabbinical Council of America, and Rabbi Weiss subsequently issued a broad explanation for his new trajectory, presenting his view of the recent history of Orthodoxy and his launching of the Open Orthodox denomination and its rabbinical and educational institutions. (Truth be told, Rabbi Weiss resigned from the RCA many months ago. His announcement of immediate resignation is quite puzzling and appears to be part of a wider plan of action.)

Rabbi Weiss presents Open Orthodoxy as the new manifestation of Modern Orthodoxy, arguing that

Since the early ’90s, Orthodoxy has undergone a number of great shifts. Responding to a precipitous move to the right within Modern Orthodoxy, a plethora of institutions and organizations have emerged. These include the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Edah, YCT and YM, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). In Israel, too, Beit Morasha, Beit Hillel, Ne’emanei Torah Ve’Avodah and others were founded and today women are being ordained (receiving semikha) from Yeshivat Maharat.

Modern Orthodoxy, which 25 years ago faced a significant … Read More >>

The New Jacobinism

Rabbi Eli Baruch Shulman

Historians wonder about the difference in outcome between the American Revolution, which resulted in a liberal democracy, and the French Revolution, which resulted in terror and tyranny.

Why was the American revolutionary project so much more successful? Regardless of the answer, we in this country have had great reason to celebrate the American success.

Unfortunately, last Friday the American experiment lurched towards the fanaticism that we associate with the French Revolution.

First, some history: The French Revolution began with the urge towards a more equitable society, in which human dignity and the rights of every man would be respected. In its early stages it produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which, in exalted language, proclaimed that Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. (Ironically, the author of the Declaration later earned the sobriquet: “the angel of death”, as he became one of the prime movers of the Terror.)

But as the revolution went on it fell into a cycle of ever increasing radicalism. A spirit of fanatic intolerance – which history remembers by the name “Jacobinism” – after the Jacobin clubs in which it was nurtured – took hold. Religion … Read More >>

SCOTUS on Same-Gender: What It Means; What It Doesn’t

1) It is not true that five members of the Supreme Court conspired to do an end-run against the will of the public and the sense of the Constitution.

Well, maybe the Constitution, if you accept Justice Scalia’s remarks. What is certainly true, however, is that to the contrary, SCOTUS mirrored a new reality in public opinion, which came to embrace full marriage rights and recognition for gays. The Court did not impose this; it demonstrated the prediction of the gemara of a time in which leadership would follow rather than lead, where pnei ha-dor ke-penei ha-kelev. This means, according to some, that the dog that seems to be leading by running ahead of the person following at the end of the leash in fact pauses at every fork in the road, looking back to its master for direction. It was the American people whose attitude changed, with a rapidity that startled most of us. Five justices of the High Court, who might have moved more cautiously as they did in the past, were now free to find the will of the people within the Constitution. The people led here, not the Court.

2) It does not mean that … Read More >>

Agudath Israel Statement on Supreme Court marriage ruling

June 26, 2015

Agudath Israel of America issued the following statement in reaction to today’s 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that states are constitutionally required to permit and recognize marriages between members of the same gender:

“As we have repeatedly stated, including in the amicus curiae brief we submitted in today’s case, we oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family. The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. While we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, it is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage is not a positive step for civilized society.

“Moreover, we are deeply concerned that, as a result of today’s ruling, and as the dissenting Justices have pointed out, members and institutions of traditional communities like the Orthodox Jewish community we represent may incur moral opprobrium and risk tangible negative consequence if they refuse to transgress their beliefs, and even if they simply teach and express their religious views publicly. That prospect is chilling, and should be unacceptable to all people of good will on both sides of this debate.

“We reiterate that we remain … Read More >>

Michael Oren’s New Book and the Mendacity of the Media

What, should Cross-Currents be the only one out there not to review Michael Oren’s new book before it even hits the stores? Especially after one of our readers, Stefanie Argamon, was nice enough to get Random House to send me not just one, but two review copies?

While the publisher may have been overly generous in my case, the overall strategy worked. The tell-all memoir by Israel’s former ambassador to the United States has been garnering lots of news stories for its take-downs of both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Michael Oren is now a member of Knesset in a centrist party, and can get away with taking jabs at those with whom he disagreed during his tenure in the diplomatic corps. Those whom he targets in Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide are now scrambling for damage control.

The reviewers to date have been most interested in the political conflicts, giving the readers what they want to hear. I spotted a few pages that I thought would interest our readers, and be ignored by other reviewers. This anecdote as well targets something many of us loves to hate:

Only once, when an op-ed … 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 >>

Ordination of Insubordination

“We’re going to blink and there’ll be 100 Orthodox women rabbis in America that have been given ordination”. –R. Adam Mintz, professor of Talmud, Yeshivat Maharat

Within the week, three Orthodox-identified rabbinical ordination programs for women granted semicha (ordination) to their graduating classes. (Please see here and here.) While the mainstream organs of Orthodoxy do not recognize or approve of the ordination of women (here are RCA statements about the matter), the reasons for not accepting the legitimacy of semicha for women remain a mystery to some.

Various articles have been published about the topic (please see here for R. Hershel Schachter’s article); I would like to take one approach and provide some elaboration.

Halachic analysis of contemporary rabbinical ordination of women was first put forth by R. Saul Lieberman (please see here for R. Gil Student’s important presentation thereof), who in 1979 expressed his opposition to such on the part of Jewish Theological Seminary.

Although R. Lieberman’s tenure at JTS was the subject of controversy and was certainly not viewed favorably by Orthodox leadership, R. Lieberman was Orthodox and was very well-versed in our topic; his ruling on it is thus quite pivotal and … Read More >>

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 >>

47 Homicides and Counting

Why are so many young black men being murdered in Baltimore, after Freddie Gray? It’s what happens when police know they might be arrested for doing their job. … 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 >>

Rabbinic Dignity – A Contemporary Lesson

After reading about the latest rabbinic “issue”, we do not know what to say. While the rabbi involved has the right to explain himself, and we cannot assume wrongdoing beyond anything which would be admitted or proven, we are left with a feeling of great disquietude and confusion.

Detractors of the rabbi point out the halachic prohibitions of a rav attending a bathhouse in the presence of his students, and defenders of the rabbi point to the absence of proof of actual wrongdoing or criminal activity. Both sides may be correct, yet they may also be missing an important point – a point that can only be appreciated by taking a step back.

If an individual retains a highly respected position, and on occasion stakes out unpopular positions, he can be the world’s greatest tzaddik and mentch, but he will nonetheless be subject to vilification. And the reverse is true as well: If an individual has criminal proclivities, especially in the realm of physical relationships, then no matter what type of formal safeguards and parameters are established, it will not help.

Yet we speak here not about any of this, but rather about a more general issue – that … Read More >>

Let’s Please Stick to the Facts: More on the Rabbanut and Rabbi Riskin

Isi Leibler, in a Jerusalem Post op-ed, gave my recent Times of Israel essay a real beating. Here is my reply.

Normal=Wonderful

It’s pretty much impossible to imagine the feelings of Funchu Tamang, a 101-year-old man who was pulled alive from under the rubble of his home a full week after the recent devastating earthquake that ravaged Nepal. But what went through his mind as light met his eyes for the first time in days and he realized that he was being rescued is ideally what should go through our own heads every morning, when we are pulled from the depths of sleep into a new day of life.

That’s what Modeh Ani is for, of course. That short statement of gratitude uttered by every observant Jew upon waking up is meant to focus our thoughts on the fact that, just as some earthquake victims are not rescued, so do some sleepers never awake. And on Chazal’s description of sleep as a taste of death. In a way, no matter how many times we may have arisen, we greet every morning as beneficiaries of techiyas hameisim.

And there are other resurrections, too, that we experience but don’t always fully appreciate. For several weeks this winter, I was homebound and in considerable discomfort with a, baruch Hashem, non-life-threatening but debilitating illness. As … Read More >>

A Different Approach to Internet Safety For Teens

 

I found the approach towards internet safety for teens that the Kiryat Arba/Hebron Ulpana High School for Girls champions refreshing and even inspiring. It is very different from what our haredi schools do in the US, which take fewer chances and concentrate power in the hands of the school and authority figures. The Kiryat Arba approach puts far more trust in the student. It would be wonderful to learn which approach has greater success. (Because the populations are so different, finding out would not necessarily mean that the “better” approach should be exported to the other locale.

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. The US approach teaches students the need for fences and boundaries, and that sometimes they need to be placed in the hands of others. The Kiryat Arba approach teaches young people to make responsible decisions, and builds their confidence.

Which ever way readers favor, the list of safety rules (beyond the primary stipulation – use of an effective filter – which they do not even count on their list of ten “dibros” of safe surfing is a delight to read. It includes such ideas as keeping sifrei kodesh near the keyboard, as a … Read More >>

The President’s Address at a DC Synagogue

by President Barack Obama

[Editor’s note: Several readers pointed out that the version that was first displayed had been tampered with – something that we were certainly unaware of. The version below is taken from the White House website, and should be accurate (unless the Elders of Zion hacked it without telling us.]

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much. (Applause.) Thank you, everybody. (Applause.) Thank you. Well, good morning, everybody!

AUDIENCE: Good morning!

THE PRESIDENT: A slightly early Shabbat Shalom. (Laughter.) I want to thank Rabbi Steinlauf for the very kind introduction. And to all the members of the congregation, thank you so much for such an extraordinary and warm welcome.

I want to thank a couple of outstanding members of Congress who are here. Senator Michael Bennet — where did Michael Bennet go? There he is. (Applause.) And Representative Sandy Levin, who is here. (Applause.) I want to thank our special envoy to combat anti-Semitism, Ira Forman, for his important work. There he is. (Applause) But as I said, most of all I want to thank the entire congregation of Adas Israel for having me here today.

Earlier this week, I was actually interviewed by one … Read More >>

Tziddukim would be happy this year

If there were any Tziddukim left, they’d be happy this year. You can read why in a Shavuos piece I wrote for the Forward, here.

A Little More about Snakes

I’m going to add a tidbit of my own to R’ Avi Shafran’s post below. I remember Prof. Robert Liebman’s class, Sociology 241, “The Social Basis of Individual Behavior.” He pointed out during a lecture that each language and culture has different words with different levels of complexity. What regular people call “snow” is subdivided by skiers into six words — and by Inuits into twenty-two different types.

Some things, however, are universal across cultures. The word that drew the most consistent, positive reactions across all cultures, he said, was “mother.” And the word that drew the most negative reaction? “Snake.”

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein & the Haredim

“I am very partial to Rav Lichtenstein’s approach,” said the Lelov hassid to me at the funeral of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l a month ago. “Rav Lichtenstein deals with abstractions, in addition to focusing on the text,” he further elucidated. There were quite a few hassidim (to judge by their sartorial taste) at the funeral. In addition, someone whose garb bespoke a haredi Litvishe affiliation responded, when I asked what his connection was with Rav Lichtenstein, “What we appreciate in his shiurim is that rather than trying to be ‘sparkling’ with fireworks, there is yashrus, a straightforward approach that speaks to us.”

They were not the only haredim among the ten thousand, mostly national religious and modern Orthodox, who attended the levaya of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, z”l. Rav Lichtenstein is one of those rabbis who are esteemed by people from many different sectors of Jewry.

Some on the liberal end of the Orthodox spectrum attribute to him a harsh rejection of the haredi world. For example, David Weinberg claimed, in his Jerusalem Post tribute the day of the funeral, that Rav Lichtenstein “taught that full involvement in Israeli society and a passion for social justice are key religious … Read More >>

The Limits of Interfaith Dialogue

I recently collaborated with David HaKohen Grosser, publisher of Segulat Yisrael, the Italian Torah journal, to examine the halachic and hashkafic parameters of interfaith dialogue and engagement. Our article appears here, posted on Arutz Sheva.

(The above photo depicts an interfaith gathering this past Lag B’Omer at Domus Galilaeae, hosted by the Neocatechumenal Way, an outreach movement within the Roman Catholic Church focusing on the Catholic formation of adults.)

Because I Chose To Be

On a recent trip to the United States, I was invited for a leil Shabbos meal by the son of a good friend of mine. (You know that you are getting old when it does not seem strange to be invited for a meal by friend’s children.)

The evening’s conversation was wide-ranging, though much centered on why this particular young man felt as soon as he landed at Kennedy Airport at 18 that he would never return to live in his native Israel.

As I was putting on my overcoat to leave, he related that he had once asked his father how it was that he seemed so comfortable with all his children despite their great differences from one another – some are in full-time learning, others in business or klal work; some live in Israel; others in America. His father answered him succinctly: “Because I chose to be.”

That struck me as another example of the great wisdom I have heard from my friend over the past quarter century. As parents, the temptation to live vicariously through our children is constant. If we have had successes in life, we want them to be successful in the same way. … Read More >>

Return Jewish Education to its Rightful Prestige

By Leslie Ginsparg Klein

At Maalot Baltimore, the numbers of students studying to be teachers are down, way down. Twenty years ago, the education courses were full. Today, psychology is full, health sciences are overflowing, but education courses get barely a handful of students. As the years go on, we offer progressively less education courses. There simply is no demand.

And it is not just at Maalot. The Avi Chai foundation (http://avichai.org/) found that very few college graduates, male or female, have been entering the field of education and this is contributing to a general dearth of qualified teachers for day schools. On top of that, the field of teaching has a high turnover rate. Teachers leave the field for more lucrative and less draining opportunities.

We, as a community, are losing talented teachers. Some never go into education. Others burn out quickly, feeling unappreciated. Our schools are forced to hire teachers with no training or experience, just to have a warm body in the room. We are losing talent to business, law, occupational therapy and high-tech. The Yeshivish schools are losing out on talent to the generally better paying Modern Orthodox institutions, and all schools are … Read More >>

What OU Kashrus Looks Like From the Inside

Last week’s essay on kashrus supervision attracted far more attention than I would have anticipated. I sensed that misinformation abounded about the OU, the people who work in kashrus, and their halachic standards. The comments that came in showed the usual mix. Some people really got the point; others really missed it. Many of the comments provided useful insight about the OU and other agencies, as well as opening sidebar conversations that were fruitful.

In short, we’re at a teachable moment. So I leaned on our own Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer – who just happens to be a rabbinic coordinator for the OU, specializing in cheese. (Maybe that’s why he smiles so much!) He, in turn, did some very informal intelligence-sharing, trying to put things in perspective. This is what he came up with::

Much heated and vibrant discussion was generated by the exchange of Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Mr. Yoel Gross and a host of online commenters regarding the perceived differences and features of OU kashrus protocol and the kashrus protocol of the “heimishe hashgochos”. In truth, there is a great need for both reliable national kashrus agencies as well as for smaller kashrus agencies that service specific kehillos … Read More >>

A World of Wastage

The recent rioting in my home town Baltimore brought two memories to mind. One was the 1968 riots, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I was fourteen, and while we lived several miles from where that violence transpired, it affected Jewish-owned stores in the inner-city, and it taught those of us who were born after the Second World War that malevolence and mayhem remained, unfortunately, alive and well.

Ostensibly, the recent rioting was a reaction to the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was nearly severed when in custody. Peaceful marches to protest that death were understandable, and in fact took place. (The death was eventually ruled a homicide by Baltimore State’s Attorney.) But then legions of young black men, many of them apparently high schoolers, began taunting and attacking police, setting fires and looting stores. Most telling were the delighted smiles on many looters’ faces, indelibly captured on film. If Mr. Gray was at all in the minds behind the faces, he had been grossly obscured by something else, an ugly anarchistic glee.

The rioters’ small minds weren’t likely capable of appreciating the irony of their actions. Not only the self-evident … Read More >>