What Is Chanukah?

“מאי חנוכה” – “What is Chanukah?” With these words does the Gemara (Shabbos 21a) commence its presentation of the religious historical underpinnings of Chanukah.

Unfortunately, Chanukah has become the most misunderstood and distorted of Jewish holidays. The secular American Jewish observance of Chanukah is largely manifest as the Festival of Consumerism (along with latkes, dreidels and vague messages of generic religious tolerance); the secular Israeli observance of Chanukah is manifest as the Festival of Might – the Maccabees’ religious devotion and attribution of their success to Hashem has been pretty much sidelined. And among the rabbinate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) has the message of Chanukah likewise become grossly malformed.

As was presented here a while back, one prominent member of the YCT rabbinate equates Chanukah with the legalization of same-sex marriage. And last week, a YCT leader, perplexed by the apparent clash of the message of Chanukah with his open, pluralistic religious orientation, declared that Chazal actually rejected the hashkafah of the Chashmona’im, instead favoring the values of pluralism and openness. Invoking a very radical understanding of Chanukah, we are told:

The rabbis …

How G-d Relates to Non-Jews

The challenge by a reader to what I wrote earlier deserves more prominent attention than a comment to his comment:

Your article really encompasses the larger question of how a Jew is to understand God’s relationship with non-Jews. A traditional belief you and I are both familiar with has it that God relates to Jews on an individual level (hashgacha pratis) but to non-Jews on a general level. Really? How are we to square that, then, with the numerous statements of Christian writers down through the centuries in which they described feeling God at their side? That, at certain great moments in their life, they knew God was with them? These statements – and I’ve heard them often, simply from Christian friends and acquaintances – put the lie to the belief that God only intervenes personally with Jews.

I believe that this “traditional belief” is inaccurately understood. There are classic sources that speak of Hashem relating to Jews with hashgacha pratis, unlike his relationship with non-Jews. This cannot (or may not) mean what you imply it means.

Can there be prayer without hashgacha pratis? Isn’t tefillah – at least petitionary tefillah – a request that Hashem intervene directly … Read More >>

How To Explain Hilchos Geirus To The Skeptic

Thought experiment in three parts: How would you explain the essence of being Jewish, or the Jewish mission, to an interested outsider to the halachic community – Jewish or non-Jewish? After you formulate your answer, try your hand at another question. How would you explain the need for exacting legal detail in the admissions process to the Jewish people, a.k.a geirus. Now, in what may be the hardest exercise, how would you get both of those answers to coexist with each other – in more minds than your own?

Despite both of us quite often disagreeing with each other, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo and I have remained good friends over the years. So I can admit to being jealous of his masterful treatment of the three questions. To be sure, some of us might use slightly different ways of expressing similar thoughts, but we can all gain from the humanity, sensitivity, and effectiveness of his approach.

What follows is his essay, as it appeared on his website. It is republished here with permission.

What makes one a Jew? Being born to a Jewish mother? Converting to Judaism? Not really. It is living by the spiritual order of … Read More >>

Is Neo-Chassidus the Answer? Why Not Neo-Hisnagdus?

In yet another new thought-provoking issue of Jewish Action, readership was introduced to the dynamic and quickly spreading movement of Neo-Chassidus, in which the original emphases and spiritual experiences of the Chassidic movement are being revived and promulgated in order to reintroduce spirituality into perceived doldrums of Modern Orthodoxy. Farbrengens, hisbodedus, Carlebach-style davening, and soul-touching stories and teachings of the Chassidic masters are among the prominent features of this old-new movement.

While this new trend raises some serious questions, I do not want to get into that here. My only comment is that the perceived lack of passion and arguable absence of a dynamic consciousness in Modern Orthodox discourse and mindset of Hashem’s presence and involvement have precipitated what is nothing short of an outright, non-confrontational rejection of the foundations of Modern Orthodoxy on the part of some of the finest cream of its crop.

What I would like to discuss, though, is that those seeking to strengthen their connection with Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu should perhaps consider redirecting their focus toward the core values of “Hisnagdus” – the approach of traditional non-Chassidic Eastern European Torah life – in their journey to provide and experience a truly authentic … Read More >>

Race Relations Regress under Obama

Television networks broadcasting President Obama’s brief speech last week about events in Ferguson, Missouri employed a split screen to juxtapose the president to rioters in Ferguson. At one level, that juxtaposition unfairly highlighted the president’s impotence.

But at another level, it captured one of the many disappointments of Obama’s presidency. Much of the euphoria that greeted the election of the first black president – Obama’s approval ratings were well above 70% at the outset of his presidency – lay in the hope that the United States could finally place the legacy of slavery and racism behind it. Yet race relations have taken a turn for the worst since he came into office.

Slate writer Jacob Weisberg wrote in February 2008 that only if Barack Obama were elected president would children in America be able to “grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives.” Well, America elected Obama, with the largest percentage of white votes of any Democratic candidate in forty years. But black children are more likely today to think of prejudice as a factor in their lives than they were six years ago.

The unknown state legislator who first came to national prominence with a … Read More >>

Finding G-d

“Where is G-d?” After stumping his Chassidim, the Kotzker is reported to have answered his own question: “Wherever you will let Him in.” This profound and beautiful approach only works for those who are thoroughly convinced of His existence, and mildly familiar with the methods for inviting Him in. What are others to do? Some thoughts on recent attempts, and a consideration of where we differ. ********************************************************************* What could be better, I thought, than a take-down by Jack Miles of the whole lot of New Atheists – and in the pages of The Atlantic, no less. Jack Miles recently finished editing The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and might therefore know a thing or two about belief. His Atlantic essay, “Why G-d Will Not Die,” is taken from his postscript to that compendium, and is therefore his last word on the state of religion after pondering the rich assortment of faith-systems. Alas, his argument could not knock a one-legged agnostic stork off his perch. It does contain, however, some delectable tidbits and one-liners.

The story begins with a younger author delighting in the words of arch-atheist (and Israel-hater) Bertrand Russell:

That man is the product of causes … Read More >>

A Halachic Query of Jordanian King Abdulla II

Dear King Abdullah,

I’m quite sure you don’t remember me. I was part of a sizable group of Jewish leaders, clergy, politicians and organizational representatives whom you, along with the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, invited to a gala lunch in a posh Manhattan hotel nine years ago.

To jog your memory, though, I was the fellow with the beard and black hat, and whose lips you may have noticed quietly moving when you entered the room. I was reciting a Jewish blessing that is to be pronounced when one sees a king. It goes “Blessed are You, G-d, Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood.” It is, for obvious reasons, not a common blessing to make, and I was happy to have the occasion to invoke it.

I remember well your address to the crowd. Its essence was your hope that Jews and Muslims might be able, despite political differences, to attain respect for each other’s religious beliefs. Your message was a vision, of a human race unified by its members’ recognition of the worth and dignity of one another. We, you may remember, applauded loudly and enthusiastically.

We learned, too, …

The Conversion Is Questionably Kosher, but the Methodology Is Unquestionably Non-Kosher

If the concept of malpractice could be applied to p’sak Halacha (halachic decision making), we would have the case of a lifetime on our hands. I am sorry to say it, but the leadership of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, undertaking to change geirus (conversion) protocol by issuing new piskei halacha (halachic rulings) to promote these changes, is juggling (halachic) torches and is doing so very irresponsibly. Converts and their descendants are going to be greatly harmed, and those easily impressed by halachic discussion that they cannot understand are going to be unwittingly drawn in and hoodwinked.

In light of recent accusations of a well-known rabbi committing crimes of immorality against converts – crimes of voyeurism, secretly viewing unclothed females at the mikveh preparing for conversion – R. Shmuel Herzfeld of Congregation Ohev Sholom/The National Synagogue, along with his synagogue’s maharat (female rabbi), turned to R. Jeffrey Fox, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, asking for an halachic ruling regarding the need for a beis din to be present when females immerse in the mikveh for conversion. Even though the beis din which oversees conversion does not and is not allowed to view the converting woman’s body (the beis … Read More >>

Terror Comes to Our Door

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

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

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

R. Eliyahu Stewart, z”l

Seldom do maspidim capture the essence of a person as well as they did on Thursday when they eulogized Rav Eliyahu Stewart z”l, a home-grown Angelino who was beloved to thousands. In an hour and a half of hespedim, no one needed to exaggerate his accomplishments. They stood proudly on their own. No one needed trivial filler to round out his life story. There was no time for that; the richness of his achievement didn’t allow for it. His rov of many years, and a succession of family members, spoke of someone who loved people, loved learning, and loved presenting Torah to talmidim. The massive number of people who essentially spent their rare holiday afternoon at his levaya was impressive testimony that the love was reciprocated.

Perhaps one element was missing, through no ones fault, from the hespedim – the perspective of a friend. Maybe I am looking for catharsis. Maybe the shock, the grief, the void draws me to the keyboard, but I am driven to share some thoughts as someone who lost a decades-long friend and confidante.

The parallels to the life of Yaakov Avinu would be compelling even if Reb Eliyahu had not died during … Read More >>

Only One Path to One Jewish People

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

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

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

When I Drifted Off the Path

A piece I wrote for the Forward about my short-lived disillusionment with Judaism when I was 12 years old can be read here.

Pair of Pieces in Haaretz

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

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

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

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

Message From the Har Nof Widows

[loose translation:] We turn to acheinu Bnei Yisrael wherever they may be. Let us all come together to increase the rachamei Shomayim shown to us! Let us all accept upon ourselves that we will increase love and brotherhood – between each person and his fellow, between community and community, between major group and major group.

Our request is that every individual should see to it to accept upon himself on Erev Shabbos Parshas Toldos, to sanctify this coming Shabbos as a day of ahavas chinam. It should be a day that we refrain from all kinds of divisive conversation, lashon hora, and rechilus.

This will be a great uplift to the souls of the heads of our families who were slaughtered for the holiness of His Holy Name.

May Hashem look from above, see our affliction, wipe away our tears, and say, “Enough!” to our sorrow. May we merit to see the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, speedily in our days – Amen, Amen.

Signed with a broken and crushed heart: Chayah Levine and family Breina Goldberg and family Yaakovah Kupinsky and family Bashi Twersky and family

Sanctity and Tradition – Where Are Things Heading, and Why Should We Care? A Response to R. Ysoscher Katz

by Avrohom Gordimer

I must have really hit a raw nerve:

Another peeping RCA rabbi. R. Gordimer, like his colleague R. Freundel, is peeping into people’s bedrooms (who sleeps with whom and who’s married to whom) and perversely sexualizes the important conversations in our community.

These abusive Rabbis need to be stopped from further corroding our communal fiber. We can’t allow them to continue trespassing boundaries and trample on our standards of tznius and kedusha.

–October 30, 2014 Facebook post by R. Ysoscher Katz, Chair of Department of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), reacting to my recent Cross-Currents article. (I presume that “who’s married to whom” refers to data in my article about several YCT students and a YCT rebbe being married to non-Orthodox clergy – something I and others find to be very concerning.)

Needless to say, I will not sling back the mud. Aside from the totally ludicrous content of R. Katz’ post, it is eminently clear from the innumerable sources documented in my recent article and in previous articles (such as this) which people, movements and institutions are “perversely sexualizing” the sacred and “trespassing boundaries and trampling on our standards of tznius and … Read More >>

An American Hero Named Elimelech

Have you ever heard of Elimelech Goldberg? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either. [Dr. Elimelech Goldstein, the volunteer medical director of Hatzalah of Baltimore, is a friend and former roommate, but that’s another story entirely.] But if you’re familiar with the Orthodox community, you’ve surely heard of the Chai Lifeline organization, and their incredible Camp Simcha for children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

Rabbi Goldberg was, for many years, the director of that camp; his first daughter, Sarah, passed away at age 2 after fighting leukemia, so he had a powerful bond with children fighting illness. And he is also a black belt in a style of martial arts… one that you’ve probably never heard of either. But that’s relevant, so bear with me please.

A South Korean man named Kwang Jo Choi was a leading instructor in Tae Kwon Do, which is probably more familiar (and if not, it’s the South Korean version of Karate). He moved to North America in order to find orthopedists to help with injuries suffered as a result, which, he learned, were caused by the way he was performing martial arts. So he created a new style, called Choi Kwang Do, … Read More >>

TheThree Cardinal Sins of Singing

by Aron White – A Young Writer contribution

Singing is part of many areas of Avodas Hashem. The Gemara refers to a Shul as a “Makom Rina,” and place of singing. The Medrash says that there are 9 songs in Tanach, and a tenth will be sung at the time of Mashiach. At our most special Simchas, our summer camps, our Shabbos tables – music and songs accompany us.

However, sometimes this wonderful way of expressing our emotions is cheapened and misused. Here are the three sins that we currently commit in some of our songs.

Sin One – The totally inappropriate song

Sometimes, in the interest of a good tune, we sing words that are totally inappropriate to the current mood. A great example is a favourite wedding song, Mordechai Ben David`s “Zachreini Na”. As Shimshon sits in captivity of the Pelishtim, his eyes having been gouged out, he prays to Hashem to allow him to go down fighting, and avenge his killers as he dies – “Remember me, and give me strength this one time, and I will avenge (my death) from the Philistines.” (Hashem grants this request, and he brings down the building on top of … Read More >>

Ebola and Metzitza Bipeh

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

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

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

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

High Holy Days with the Military

by Samantha Hauptman

Rosh Hashana – The head of the year, a time to reflect on the past year and resolve to be more tolerant, more compassionate, and more observant for the year ahead. The new-year offers hope and opportunity. So, when Rabbi David Becker, who is involved in military chaplaincy through Pirchei Shoshanim, asked if we wanted to join him at camp Pendleton for the High Holy Days, I was certainly intrigued.

Rosh Hashana also involves worry about menus and new ways to prepare symbolic foods such as leeks. I shop, cook and clean, and then try to enter the Holiday stress-free with a smile and blessing for each of my children. So, while the idea of Rosh Hashana at a Marine Base sounded highly unconventional, Rabbi Becker was offering the opportunity to leave behind the drudgery of preparing for the holiday and a chance to interact with Jewish Marines, who in all likelihood had never experienced a traditional Orthodox service. Through Pirchei Shoshanim, approximately 60 Orthodox Jews were invited to Camp Pendleton to express our gratitude to the men and women who guarantee our freedom of religion by serving in the United Stated Military.

Each family …

Why I Am Stepping Down From a GPS Beis Din

By Steven Pruzansky

After seven years as head of the Bet Din L’Giyur (the conversion court) in Bergen County, under the auspices of the Beth Din of America and the Gerus Protocol and Standards (GPS) adopted by the RCA in 2007, I have decided to resign from the Bet Din. I sent this missive to my supervisors:

“After much deliberation, I have decided to resign as Rosh Bet Din of the RCBC and step down from the Bet Din itself, effective immediately.

It has been spiritually rewarding to serve in this capacity for the last seven years. I am extremely proud of the professionalism, sensitivity, integrity and fidelity to Halacha of the RCBC Bet Din that I and my colleagues established, and that successfully brought more than 100 gerei Tzedek tachat kanfei hashechina.

In the current climate, with changes to GPS protocols contemplated, it is an appropriate time for new leadership.

I wish you all continued hatzlacha.”

In the current cynical climate, I must append the following. Lest anyone gets the wrong impression, and at the risk of sounding silly and self-serving, suffice it to say that I am not resigning because of any scandal. There … Read More >>

Looting the Kodesh

by Avrohom Gordimer

Looters have invaded sacred space; the plane in crisis has been hijacked.

Obviously, the Orthodox community must act with extreme care, meticulousness and scrutiny pursuant to the recent startling allegations of highly immoral crimes involving mikveh and conversion on the part of a well-known Modern Orthodox rabbi. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) took immediate action, and so have mikveh associations and synagogues. Undoubtedly, the entire scope of necessary responsive actions that may be needed remains to be seen and would have to be implemented comprehensively and with thorough deliberation.

All steps taken need to be done with the goal of securing the system, protecting all users, and restoring a sense of utmost safety and privacy, rather than with an eye toward dismantling the system and redefining it. Sadly, this has not fully been the case.

Moreover, and seldom discussed, is the need to fortify the atmosphere of sanctity that pertains to mikveh and conversion such that these two holy institutions are not associated with anything base or crass. When a reputation has been unjustifiably sullied, it needs to be restored; when a mitzvah has been publicly associated with lewdness, the import and sacred image … Read More >>

Kiruv Goes On: the Models Change

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler in his justly famous essay on Sukkos (“Bitul HaYesh”) brings a Midrash that compares our entry into the sukkah to a mini-galus. The Midrash explains why the mitzvah of sukkah follows Yom Kippur: Perhaps the Jewish people have been decreed for galus, exile, (or an extension of the current galus). And if so, perhaps HaKadosh Baruch Hu will accept our leaving our fixed abode to live in the sukkah for seven days in lieu of a full-scale exile.

Thus sukkah is, at some level, an antidote for exile. Rabbi Dessler explains how. Our current galus came about for the sin of sinas chinam, senseless hatred. From a materialistic perspective, which views the world as a limited pie, anyone else’s gain of a larger piece inevitably comes at everyone else’s expense. The primarily relationship between people is as competitors.

Leaving behind the security of our normal dwelling for an insecure, temporary dwelling, forces us to give up some of our reliance on the material and place our trust in Hashem. That move from a material to a spiritual perspective in turn allows us to see our fellow Jews as joined to us in a common spiritual … Read More >>

Winter High

The wishes of “git vinter!” customary in some communities after Shemini Atzeres might put some people in mind of fall’s end weeks hence, and give them a chill. Not me.

I’m decidedly in the minority when it comes to the seasons of the year (as I am, as an aficionado of early morning, when it comes to the times of the day). While I’m thrilled with the onset of each new season, appreciating the changes that I didn’t fully experience during the several years I spent in California, winter is my favorite season.

Not that I like shoveling snow any more than anyone else. But there’s something about the rolling in of a massive cold front that – how can I say it? – warms my heart (if not my hands). To me, the frigid cold is exciting, inspiring. Besides, watching snow fall from a warm place through a window and running chilled hands under a warm stream of water are distinct pleasures of their own.

What’s more, winter is symbolic of childhood.

You didn’t know that? Neither did I, at least until I found the thought in the Maharal’s Gur Aryeh supercommentary on Rashi (Beraishis 26:34); it is … Read More >>

Fixing The Damaging Messages We Are Teaching Women And Girls

by Leslie Ginsparg Klein

“Orthodox women should have a job, not a career.” That is the message that frum girls are hearing at home and throughout their education. I’ve heard it repeated by my students, graduates of Bais Yaakov high schools and seminaries, who use it as a guiding principle. Words are powerful and words have significance. These words, and their implicit meaning, are damaging to women and our community. I implore parents and educators to stop using them.

In Pirkei Avos (1:11), the Mishnah warns us of the importance of being meticulous in the language that we use, particularly when we are in a leadership role. “Chachamim hizharu bidvareichem,” (Scholars, be careful with your words.) Rav Hirsch explains that this warning is directed at teachers and those who are guiding others in life. They need to take care not to use language that is “inaccurate, vague or ambiguous and may inspire erroneous views.” I fear this is exactly what is happening today with regards to guiding girls and women in their professional choices.

Why does it matter whether we call work a job or a career? What do people mean when they make that differentiation? Within sections … Read More >>

Viewing One Another with a Favorable Eye

Just before Rosh Hashanah, Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of Yaakov Naftali Fraenkel, one the three murdered yeshiva students, issued a video message through Aish.com to the entire Jewish people. She recounted very briefly the torture of the18 days of searching for her son and Eyal Yifrach and Gil-ad Shaer: The parents knew almost from the beginning that their sons had almost certainly been murdered, and yet they maintained stoic countenances, filled with faith, throughout. Their nobility awed the entire nation.

Her message, however, was not about what the parents suffered or about the irreparable hole in their hearts. Rather she focused on those “amazing hours” of which it was said, “We went out searching for the boys and we discovered ourselves.” She likened those days to a flash of lightning on a dark and gloomy night that illuminates the way forward: “We had days and days of lightning. . . . [W]e saw about ourselves that we are part of something huge, a people, a true family. That’s for real.”

Mrs. Fraenkel knows that it is not all kumbaya moments ahead of us, and that we will return to old patterns – indeed we already have. Yet, she insists, … Read More >>