J’Accuse. You Have Hurt Me, Lisa

Lisa, I am very disappointed and personally hurt by your words directed against me.

You and I have communicated before. We are in agreement on many issues, and have always been amicable with regards to the exceptions. So I find it difficult to adequately express my surprise and pain to have discovered your essay, in which you accuse me personally of bloodshed.

Yes, you did accuse me personally. You said it explicitly: “The entire Hareidi community spilled this blood.” I have the Fedora hat. I have the beard, the big black yarmulke, and the Tzitzis. And I pray in the right synagogues. You meant me.

I warned that hateful essays would be written. I just didn’t expect someone like yourself to be the writer. Your words were painful precisely because your accusation was both hateful and personal.

I understand that you disagree with our continued fealty to the Book of Leviticus, but our calling a certain act “to’eva” has not, in our community, ever encouraged murder. That is simply because the same Torah that calls that action “to’eva” also requires us to love every Jew, to not hate our brethren, and above all, not to murder. I … Read More >>

Lion Hunting and Torah Teachings

Although we are now occupied with far weightier issues than a recent illegal lion hunt – issues such as the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and acts of killing and assault by deranged/incredibly misguided zealots, along with counter-accusations, which are prominently addressed in these webpages – I posted this brief article in Times of Israel, in an attempt to elucidate and glean some basic Torah lessons from the cruel lion hunt by a Minnesota dentist.


Bigotry Watch

First things first: I learned while preparing this that one of the victims of today’s stabbing in Jerusalem is unstable and in critical condition. Whoever he or she may be, and I hope we’ll get his or her name for our Tefilos — please say a kepital (chapter) of Tehilim (Psalms) for his or her speedy recovery.

I hope I’m wrong. But I expect open displays of bigotry in the days ahead, after the “gay pride” parade in Jerusalem was disrupted by a terrorist stabbing.

I am, of course, referring to open displays of bigotry against the Orthodox community. Because if someone uses the actions of a single deranged individual to slander an entire community, to imply that the community somehow supported or abetted the crime via action or attitude, that isn’t fighting bigotry — it’s showing it.

And in this case, the terrorist who ran through Jerusalem’s parade stabbing people, though clearly mentally ill, (probably) grew up in our community and was dressed in the garb of an Orthodox Jew. That he thought this was somehow an appropriate act is evidence prima facie of his evil insanity. The idea that he represented any haredi opinion or school … Read More >>

What Azoulay Meant About Reform Jews

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner

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

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

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

Israel’s current President, Ruby Rivlin, was …

An Open Letter To Rabbi Herzl Hefter

by Rabbi Nahum Spirn

אֵיךְ נָפְלוּ גִבּוֹרִים – How the mighty have fallen. These words, spoken by King David in his eulogy for King Saul, seem to apply oh-all-too well to you, R’ Herzl. How we looked up to you when we were in Gush. How my peers were impressed by your incisive analyses of Rishonim when you taught them Yoreh De’ah in Gruss.

And now, in your recent essay explaining your decision to ordain women: From a few vague sentences in the writings of the Ishbitzer, you bring out not just a new yesod in a sugya (a fundamental, underlying principle in a Talmudic topic). No, not just that. Rather, a whole new yesod turning upside-down all of Jewish intellectual and religious history. How weak a basis can one have (see here)!

So how is it possible? How is it possible that a leading student of Rav Lichtenstein, one who excelled in understanding when a Rishon (early Talmudic commentator) was making a clear point and when he was ambiguous and thus open to interpretation — how can it be that this student takes a few ambiguous and esoteric statements from a few Chassidic masters and says … Read More >>

Planned (Frum) Parenting

I do not think that I am a great parent; I do not know if I am even a good one. Nonetheless, even those of us whose accomplishments are mediocre or worse learn from experience and can thus ascend the soap box once in a while to share advice with others (or to rant, based on the audience’s perspective).

Parenting in the frum world is a unique experience, as our schedules and obligations are typically far weightier than those of general society. Furthermore, unlike in the secular world, where education of youth is principally pragmatic – to provide the tools to make a living and conduct oneself properly, with awareness and appreciation for certain values and knowledge – the Jewish obligation of Talmud Torah, Torah study, transcends the pragmatic and is a holy lifelong endeavor of dedication to Hashem, demanding consistent reinforcement and presenting challenges throughout.

These factors – the character of a frum lifestyle and the nature of our chinuch (Torah education) obligations – combine in such a way that parenting for Orthodox Jews becomes a unique enterprise, requiring its own focus and cultivation, far beyond the “basics” of good parenting that general society preaches. Parenting in any … Read More >>

Da’as Torah and the Holocaust

The idea that we have 20/20 hindsight is, in actuality, simply a myth. If hundreds of thousands had fled Europe, sacrificing their dedication to HaShem and His Torah, how do we know history would otherwise have stayed equal? … Read More >>

For What Was the Land Lost?

“Al ma avdah et ha’aretz – For what was the Land lost?” our Sages asked in the wake of the destruction of the Temple.

To that question, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes, the historians had easy answers. The destructions of both Temples were hardly miraculous. Just the opposite: they followed THE normal rules of history. “How could tiny Judea have avoided falling prey to the rising Assyrian and Babylonian imperial powers! How could the insignificant power of Judea mount resistance to the mighty Roman legions!”

And the historians are right, Rabbi Hirsch pointed out. But they misunderstood the question that our Sages were asking. The surprise lay not in the defeats at the hands of the Babylonians and later the Romans. Rather the miracle was the “political existence of Judea for more than a thousand years, an existence for which every natural prerequisite was absent.” At the most vital crossroads of the ancient world, coveted by every major empire, how had the Jews maintained some level of independence for a millennium?

So the question our Sages asked was really: What happened to cause the miraculous Power to forsake Israel? Why did the same Power “Whose eagles’ wings alone raised … Read More >>

The President Is Not Mad

I thank my friend Rabbi Menken for a vivid demonstration of American democracy at its best. He took Natan Sharansky’s Town Square Test and emerged with his head still perched atop his shoulder blades. We are very fortunate to live in a country that tolerates dissent, even in the extreme.

Dissent happens even in the pages of Cross-Currents. I dissent. In the extreme.

The President is not mad. He is not an imbecile. He is not evil.

I have no doubt that he has the interests of America foremost in mind, as do many others who worked on the accord, and those who continue to defend it.

I do believe, as a layperson with no great insight or insider information, that the Iran deal is a poor one. I will work, along with other Americans, to persuade our legislators to push back against it. I believe that the short-term threat is not to Israel, but to the United States. The Iranians may actually slow progress towards the bomb for a few years to achieve relief from the crippling sanctions the West imposed. The greatest immediate threat is to countries other than Israel, which will feel the effect … Read More >>

Tisha B’Av: For Whom Do We Mourn?

How the city still sits solitary! Some two thousand years later, transformed into a bustling metropolis, the city and her people still sit and mourn alone.

Many revile her today more intensely than the Roman conquerors of antiquity. Many do not, but that does not relieve the loneliness of her mourning on the night of Tisha B’Av. Who can encompass a fraction of her sustained pain of two millennia of isolation, contempt, wandering, insecurity, savagery, auto-da-fes, ghettos, and gas chambers? Her friends might offer sympathy, but only those who experienced the consequences of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdosh and the exiling of the Shechinah, who chronicled her suffering with quills dipped in blood, can understand.

And so it will be until the Temple is restored and the Divine Presence returns to its appointed place.

Tisha B’Av must remain an intensely private day of mourning, not to be shared with anyone else. It flows from Jewish aspirations, and Jewish disappointments.

Or so it would seem. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, however, thought differently. If we comprehended the purpose and function of the Beis HaMikdosh, the world would be mourning with us.

It is for this “Galus Shechinah,” this “Exile of … Read More >>

Recent Articles on Two Different Kinds of Evolution

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

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

A Very Bad Deal: Let Us Count the Ways

Upon the signing of an Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1994, President Bill Clinton addressed the American people and assured them, “This is a good deal for the United States.” He explained that “North Korea [would] freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program” and that “U.S. and international inspectors will carefully monitor to make sure it keeps its commitments.”

Well, we know how well that worked out. Eight years later, North Korea kicked out international inspectors, and in 2006, it tested its first nuclear weapon underground. Wendy Sherman, the State Department policy coordinator for North Korea at the time of the signing of the Agreed Framework, just happens to have been the lead U.S. negotiator in nuclear talks with Iran since late 2013.

But it would be a mistake to make too much of the North Koran precedent. The Iranian deal that the U.S. is poised to sign, as I write, is worse, much worse, in every way than that with North Korea. North Korea at least had to kick out inspectors to go nuclear. The P5+1 agreement with Iran now on the table is so porous that inspections would be nearly useless. After first insisting that inspections … Read More >>

Being Confused on Tisha B’Av – It’s OK, and It’s and Even Recommended

Every year, as we go through the Bein Ha-Metzarim, the period commencing with the Three Weeks and culminating with Tisha B’Av, I get very confused, and I think that many others do as well.

One the one hand, the Batei Mikdash (Temples) and the Galus (Exile) were caused by our sins. This is clear from Tanach (the Bible), the Talmud and the very texts of the Kinnos.

On the other hand, when punishment is meted out due to the commission of sin, the Jewish response is not so much to mourn and certainly not to complain, but to act – to do teshuva (repentance) and correct our ways. Such has been precedent since Biblical times, and throughout Jewish history. This being the case, why do we both mourn and complain on Tisha B’Av of the losses, the harsh wrath of God and the calamities that befell our people? If we know the reason for the punishment, let’s get over it and take action. Why wallow in sorrow?

Furthermore, and doubly perplexing, is that on Tisha B’Av, we actually question God – not heretically, but we ask questions of “why”: Why did God rage against us? Why did He not have … Read More >>

Widening the Discussion

Last week, Rabbi Dr. David Berger published a bold and provocative critique about Open Orthodoxy. A brief attempted rebuttal of the article on the part of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld seems to have gained little traction, and appears to have largely backfired, judging by the comments.

This week, Rabbi Harry Maryles likewise posted a serious critique of Open Orthodoxy, which YCT graduate Rabbi Ben Greenberg subsequently attempted to rebut. As this rebuttal attempt was quite elaborate and public (in Times of Israel), and was also posted by the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, I felt that a response by yours truly would perhaps be of use.

Here is my response, published likewise in Times of Israel.



The Peril of Pluralism in Israel

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

The Blessings of Freedom: Reflections on a Changing America

by Moshe Hauer

In 1812, as Napoleon and his Grand Arme̒e were approaching Russia, many Jewish leaders were eagerly anticipating their arrival, hoping that it would bring the liberty, equality and fraternity promised by the French Revolution, and with that some measure of relief from the persecution that was the Jews’ usual lot.  Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Baal HaTanya, felt otherwise, hoping, praying and actively working for the Czar’s army to prevail.  As he wrote to one of his disciples:

If Bonaparte will be victorious, Jewish wealth will increase, and the prestige of the Jewish people will be raised; but their hearts will disintegrate and be distanced from their Father in Heaven. But if Alexander will be victorious, although Israel’s poverty will increase and their prestige will be lowered, their hearts will be joined, bound and unified with their Father in Heaven.                              (Igrot Kodesh Admur HaZaken, letter #64)

In our own time in the United States, a gracious and generous society that grants equal rights to the Jews, Jewish wealth and prestige have grown and religious Jewish communities and institutions have flourished.  At the same time, the fears of the Baal HaTanya have certainly been realized as … Read More >>

A Model Shul

Last week was spent in Toronto, where most of my davening was in Congregation Shomrai Shabbos. One instantly notices that a great deal of thought went into the design of the shul, with an eye to maximizing Torah learning. Whenever there is a minyan in one of the large rooms in the morning, there are at least three other rooms available for chavrusos and chaburos, each beautifully designed to foster harchavas hadaas. There are chaburos and chavrusos throughout the shul both early and late.

But what strikes me most about the shul is not just the amount of Torah learning, but the closeness of the members to one another and their allegiance to the rav, Rabbi Yacov Shalom Felder. Shomrai Shabbos is a chevra of Jews who have joined together with other aspiring bnei aliyah to strengthen one another in the growth process. And in Rabbi Felder they have a rav focused on building a community and on the ruchniyos growth of each member, despite the heavy demands on his time as vice-chairman of the Rabbinical Vaad HaKashrus of Toronto. His success is reflected in the wide diversity of the community in terms of backgrounds, hashkafah, and dress – … Read More >>

The Basis of Our Mesorah: Parents Worthy of Trust

I mention my morning shiur fairly frequently in these pages, partly to indicate how important such a shiur with a rav whom each person in the shiur looks up to as a walking Mesilas Yesharim can be for a pashute baalebos, like myself. Though by far the bulk of the shiur is taken up with Gemara learning, I often feel the fifteen minutes of mussar/hashkafa at the beginning are the most important for me at this stage in my life. In recent years, we have finished the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Mishlei (twice), Mesilas Yesharim (twice), and most of Nefesh HaChaim (so perhaps I should be careful about writing that the mussar seder has the largest impact).

Recently, we began the Ramchal’s Derech Hashem. In the first chapter, in which the Ramchal specifies what we can know about Hashem, he mentions that all these matters can be derived logically, but that he prefers to rely on the mesorah for his presentation. Elaborating on this comment, the rav made reference to the famous Ramban at the end of parashas Bo, which we have studied together many times.

The Ramban writes that Hashem does not perform open miracles in every generation, … Read More >>

Israel Led the Way — Sadly

The United States today is in almost every respect a more unpleasant country than the one I left over 35 years ago – less optimistic, less confident, and more bitterly divided. For the first time in American history, parents no longer contemplate a brighter future for their children than for themselves.

There are no doubt many reasons and many culprits. But I would place the political Left pretty close to the top of the list. The Left’s denigration of American military strength and its leadership role in a unipolar world after 1989 and the denial of American exceptionalism – i.e., the United States’ unique history as a nation not based on blood and soil, but on allegiance to a particular system of government in the form of the Constitution – have come at the expense of national pride.

Finally, the Left’s ruthless will to power, with scant regard for the rules of the game or the levelness of the playing field, has made American politics far more divisive than I remember. In 2012, President Obama pursued a campaign strategy of stitching together a slim majority based on a variety of identity issues, such as the trumped up “Republican war … Read More >>

Supreme Court Vs. Supreme Being

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

The Pew Christian Report: What It Means For Them And For Us

First Pew came for the Jews; then Pew came for the Christians.

Martin Niemöller didn’t really say that – but he could have. The famed Pew study of Jewish religious life and attitudes (Pew1) that sent shock waves through the Jewish community a few years ago has now done the same for Christians (Pew2). There are huge implications for them – and for us as traditional Jews.

Pew2 demonstrates that more Christians continue to live in the US than any other country in the world. About seven out of ten Americans call themselves Christian. But Pew2 found that that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, while the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points. Losses are severe among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Among Christians, only Evangelicals, the Christian groups that place that make the greatest demands of doctrinal conformity (e.g. biblical inerrancy) emerged from Pew2 feeling good about themselves. Their absolute numbers may have actually improved. Mormons held their own; Muslims … Read More >>

A Magical Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gay Marriage Decision Interview

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

Tikvah Fund Institute for Women

It is a woman’s prerogative, they say, to change her mind. The same ought to hold for a women’s program. Happily, the Tikvah Fund, the group that is responsible for the most intellectually stimulating week of the year for me, is exercising that option. After first deciding to defer the special summer program for frum women this year, Tikvah changed its mind. There will indeed be a female counterpart to the now highly competitive men’s program this August, and registration is now open..

“Women, Men and the Future of Marriage in America” would be a great topic to double down on at any time; the recent Supreme Court decision makes it a front-burner topic for all thinking Jews. Like other Tikvah Fund programs for the observant community, the program allows treatment of this topic in a manner unachievable elsewhere. It brings together recognized Torah personalities, icons of the secular world with academic, legal, and media background, committed Torah Jews who can bridge the two worlds, and provides the venue and the time for the participants to pursue issue in depth.

The Torah faculty will be led by Miriam Kosman, a well-known author (including the acclaimed Circle, Arrow, … Read More >>

Say It Isn’t So, Rabbi Shafran

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

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

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