“Personal Torah”

A recent announcement by a respected Conservative rabbi has been trumpeted widely as evidence of his heroism. My take is somewhat different, and was published, to the periodical’s credit, by the Forward. You can read it here

The “Shabbos App” is a Farce

It is true that the “Shabbos App” has attracted a great deal of attention and discussion. Personally, I am waiting for the prankster to come forward and explain that this was all designed to make Orthodox Jews look bad by demonstrating their focus on … what, precisely, I’m not sure. Probably that we care about Shabbos at all, and are distressed by those teens in many communities who are unable to set aside their phones when required by Halacha. But we’ll get to that eventually. The simple fact of the matter is that this whole thing is a farce, and of course we have yet to see anyone pony up $49.95 to get their (non-working) copy and prove me right or wrong. And I’m pretty sure I’m right. Rabbosai, you’ve all been fooled.

Let’s look at the evidence, which falls into four basic categories: the announcement, the website, the video, and the backers.

The Announcement They claim they’ll release it in February. If it takes that long to build this (which it shouldn’t), there’s no need to start marketing it so far in advance. The promised final version will cost $49.95, which is extraordinarily high for an app, much … Read More >>

Why I Love Rav Shmuel – And Will Advocate Vaccination Nonetheless

There is no contradiction. Anyone who finds one has targeted a straw man.

I have had the benefit of association with three generations of Kamenetskys. They have never, ever let me down when I have turned to them for guidance and insight.

The short but meaningful times I spent with both Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l provided the bases of a lifetime of confidence in the halachic system, and in the concept of emunas chachamim.

Making the transition from a fairly black yeshiva to teaching at a West Coast institution with the name YU just would not have happened without Rav Yaakov reassuring me that it was a good move. I am still in awe of the precision and focus of a man well into his eighties, late at night, as I drove him from Brooklyn to his home in Monsey. Watching and listening to him provided unshakeable evidence that mussar could work – that the visions of R Yisrael Salanter and the Alter of Slabodka were no pipe dream.

Lehavdil bein chaim le-chaim, Rav Shmuel continued the trademark smile of his father, as well as copious advice, to me and to all my … Read More >>

What’s (Shabbos) App?

Yielding to the many who have asked for my take on the now-infamous Shabbos app, here is the quick and dirty version:

It does not do what its developers say it does – “The Shabbos App will give all Yidden a way to keep Shabbos with all the chumrahs.” Not only does it fail to address all or many chumros, it does not address many issues of ikkar ha-din. By that I mean real, normative issurim. We don’t even have to go to “spirit of Shabbos” halachos, which also happen to be binding.

For some people, using the app will be worse than texting without it.

The notion that a time-delay turns an action into a grama is wrong on two counts. Grama is still forbidden mi-derabbanan – not as a chumra. And there is little to support the notion that a delay in an action manifesting its desired consequence makes it a grama.

Without providing much detail, consider the melachah of tzeidah according to the Rambam (Shabbos 10:22), where temporarily causing a deer to freeze out of fright is chayav mi-dorayso when it delays a hunting dog (after a delay!) to seize it. Or removing oil from … Read More >>

The Waning Strength and Influence of American Jewry – Including Orthodoxy

By Avrohom Gordimer

The Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project: A Portrait of Jewish Americans created shockwaves, as the shrinkage of (non-Orthodox) American Jewry and its impact and role were ominously documented and further forecast. Far fewer Jews, far less support for the State of Israel, far less religious affiliation and practice, and an overall disappearing American Jewish public presence are starkly indicated and are already occurring. Unless non-Orthodox Jewry returns to its traditional posture and makes a radical, sweeping commitment to intra-marriage and fortification of Jewish identity, its termination as a major religious-ethnic group is almost certain. This would obviously not only mean the effective end of American non-Orthodox Jewry, but it could also mean the end of significant American support for the State of Israel – a support that has been largely precipitated by elected officials seeking to secure the Jewish vote and responding to lobbying efforts on the part of large American Jewish organizations, representing sizeable Jewish political and financial support.

Despite the acutely negative predictions, non-Orthodox leadership has failed to take the necessary steps to attempt to salvage the situation. While a return to Torah observance, values and lifestyle would be the primary … Read More >>

Time After Time

Ever since the famous science fiction writer H. G. Wells penned “The Time Machine” in 1895, the notion of a protagonist traveling through time by means of magic or fantastic technology has captured the imaginations of countless writers and readers.

Wells’ famous work involved travel into the future. But many subsequent flights of fancy concerned going back in time to an earlier period and, often, tinkering with past events to change the future.

It might not immediately occur to most of us that our mesorah not only anticipated the idea of time travel but in fact teaches that it is entirely possible, an option available to us all. And, unlike so many popular fiction time travel fantasies where havoc is wreaked by intruding on an earlier time, Jewish travel to the past is sublime. And, in fact, required of us.

Is that not the upshot of how Chazal portray teshuvah, repentance? It is, after all, nothing less than traveling back through time and changing the past. The word itself, in fact, might best be translated as “returning.” We assume it refers to our own returning to where we should be. But it might well hold a deeper thought, that … Read More >>

On The Derech To Rosh Hashanah

Life is full of exceptions. So while I generally am uneasy about cross-posting (no pun intended), sometimes a piece is so important that you want a portion of the mitzvah of spreading it around. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz’s advice about unexpected guests in shuls for the Yomim Nora’im clearly qualifies.

[Sometimes there are less objective reasons for making exceptions. Because I have been unable to come down from the high of spending a week with the participants in the Tikvah Program For Yeshiva Men last month, whenever I find a trumpet sounding its success, I have a hard time putting it down. Earlier today, Gil Student published a new one on Torah Musings, by one of our participants, Shmuel Winiarz. He captured a good part of the magic.]

Back to the first compelling cross-post. Rabbi Horowitz speaks to an issue that is far more common than we would like to believe. I have observed the scene myself, but never had the insight to do something about it, as he did in his release earlier today:

Many of the kids my colleagues and I work with all year long return to their own Shul for Rosh Hashana and Yom … Read More >>

School News

The same week that Mishpacha published a panel discussion with four Orthodox members of public school boards (“In the Hot Seat”), Tablet Magazine carried a 15-page article (“The Blame Game”) by Batya Ungar-Sargon on the communal tensions arising from the election of a majority chareidi school board in the East Ramapo School District, which covers Monsey and Spring Valley. The Tablet piece fully confirmed, and even supplemented, the Mishpacha panel’s presentation of their interest in serving all segments of the larger community, not just the Orthodox population.

In an interview, Ungar-Sargon described the standard portrayal of the controversies in East Ramapo: Chassidim take over public school board in order to siphon off public monies from disadvantaged kids to pay for the schooling of their own special needs children. The New York Times, for instance, accused “[a]n Orthodox-dominated board of ensuring “that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars.” And Bloomberg News quoted accusations that the board was “siphoning public funds for private schools.”

Admittedly, the visuals were terrible: The election of a majority Orthodox board in 2005 was followed in 2009 by dramatic cuts in the public school services, including the firing of teachers, with … Read More >>

From Volozhin to Sanz, Gush Etzion to Talmon – A 5774 Retrospective

by Reuven Ungar

The following is written in memory of the boys and chayalim, may Hashem avenge their blood, who sanctified His Name. May their memory be a blessing.

Introduction: The outgoing year included events that gripped the collective Jewish People in a profound way. The following is an attempt to to reflect upon these events under the prism of Volozhin, highlighting the relevance of the flagship yeshiva of Lithuanian Jewry upon contemporary events. There is a pattern in the works- unity and the connection of the generations.

I Volozhin

The mere mention of Yeshivat Volozhin, Etz Chaim, founded by Rav Chaim of Volozhin, disciple of the Gra, generates the following associations: Torah Lishma, mastery of Torah, devotion to Torah, of the Torah shelo tehe muchlefet. Jewish leadership and love of The Land of Israel. Rav Chaim, the Netziv, the Beis HaLevi and Rav Chaim Brisker. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rav Baruch Ber Lebowitz, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer.

Although the physical doors have been closed, the Tree of Life of Volozhin flourishes. It has survived the Czar and the Bolsheviks, the 60’s and post-modernism.

It is perpetuated in Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan … Read More >>

When Orthodox Jews Boycott Israeli Produce

The article below appeared in Haaretz last week.

The “ultra-Orthodox” are at it again. This time they’re aiding and abetting the BDS movement.

Well, not intentionally perhaps, but still. An early welcome to 5775!

The Jewish year about to begin, of course, is a shmita, or “Sabbatical,” year, and its implications are sticking in the craw of some non-ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A bit of background: The Torah enjoins Jews privileged to live in the Holy Land to not till or plant during each seventh year. What grows of its own is to be treated as ownerless and may not be sold. The law is viewed as an expression of ultimate trust in G-d

When substantial numbers of Jews began to return to Eretz Yisrael in the 19th century, some of the pioneering Jewish farmers endeavored to observe shmita; most, though, living in deep poverty, did not. As a result, in 1896, religious leaders, including respected Haredi rabbis, approved a plan whereby land owned by Jews was legally transferred to the possession of Arabs for the duration of the shmita year, technically transforming Jewish farmers into sharecroppers and, with some conditions, permitting cultivation of the land.

During subsequent shmita years, many …

A Connection to Torah for All

Too many of our contemporary yeshiva high schools are seeking only the Eisavs among the applicants, Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg quotes a prominent rosh yeshiva as saying in his essay in the current issue of Klal Perspectives on High School Boys Chinuch. The rosh yeshiva meant that the high school yeshivos are seeking only those who are fully formed – asui, like Eisav – in both their intellectual abilities and their dedication to Gemara learning.

Rabbi Goldberg suggests that the source of that attitude may lie in a distortion of the widely quoted rabbinic dictum “a thousand enter and one goes out to hora’a.” Yeshivos vie to produce “the one who goes out to hora’a,“ and the status of a yeshiva is determined by the quality of its most accomplished graduates in Gemara learning. Parents go along by seeking entrance to the “best” yeshivos for their sons. The race to produce “the one,” and the competition to be the yeshiva for “only the best boys” yeshiva it leads to, can have several adverse consequences.

(I should emphasize that I am speaking theoretically. Rabbi Goldberg was writing in the American context, and I am in no position to evaluate … Read More >>

Living with Emunah

James McDonald, the first American ambassador to Israel, once remarked that Israel is the only country in the world that factors 25% miracle into all government planning. At some level, one must be a ba’al emunah to live in Israel.

Just consider last week’s news. According to one fully credible source, Hamas is already attempting to clear away the attack tunnels destroyed by the IDF and to rearm. And that was the least of the scary news of the week.

Israel TV reported that Israel is frantically preparing for a “very violent war” against Hezbollah. According to the report, Hezbollah has 100,000 rockets, over ten times as many as Hamas at the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, and is thus capable of overwhelming Iron Dome’s protective shield. That 100,000 figure includes at least 5,000 missiles with precision guidance systems capable of reaching all Israel. Because their trajectory is not locked in at the time of firing, those missiles represent a far larger challenge for Iron Dome and the Arrow anti-missile defense systems.

Like Hamas, Hezbollah has built over the years an intricate system of interconnected underground tunnels from which it can fight defensively in southern Lebanon. And it is … Read More >>

Travels In Israel and the Tochachoh For Moderns

Visiting Israel always yields delights and surprises. Sometimes they come instantly; sometimes they take reflection. Usually, in my experience, they involve taxi drivers. On my recent trip, I found new understanding of the tochachoh that we read last Shabbos. The insight was inspiring, but frightening.

The brief trip combined the bar-mitzvah of a grandson with some professional work, and a bit of time for some judicious sight-seeing. My friend Harvey Tannenbaum of Efrat was eager to show some of the places in the news of the last months. I gladly accepted the invitation, heeding my own recent suggestion that one way of promoting achdus was to cross the invisible boundaries that separate sub-communities from each other. (I would also travel to Mercaz HaRav for a Thursday night mishmar shiur by my mechutan and partner in the bar-mitzvah, R Mordechai Willig, that began at 12:30AM and drew about 70 talmidim, all of whom stayed eager and attentive, but that is not for this essay.)

Harvey is a Mekor Chaim parent. His son, Simcha, is a senior in the exclusive Dati Leumi high school from which two of the three murdered teens Hy”d left the night they were abducted. Makor Chaim, … Read More >>

Immoral “Morality”

In a good illustration of just how thick people who are intellectually gifted can be, the well-known biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins recently offered his opinion that Down syndrome children would best be prevented from being born. “It would be immoral,” he wrote, “to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”


The dehumanization says it all.

Professor Dawkins’ judgment of birthing a developmentally disabled child as “immoral” stems from his belief (shared by another famously mindless professor, Peter Singer, who also advocates euthanasia for severely handicapped infants and elderly) that an act’s morality should be gauged entirely by whether or not it increases happiness or suffering.

Mr. Dawkins’ comment drew considerable fire, as well it should have. Some of those who assailed the professor for his – let’s here reclaim an important adjective – immoral stance focused on the factual error of his creepy calculus. Two psychology researchers wrote, for example, in something of an understatement, that “individuals with Down syndrome can experience more happiness and potential for success than Mr. Dawkins seems to appreciate.”

In fact, 99% of respondents to a survey of those with Down syndrome (yes, 99%) report that … Read More >>

Israel’s New Torah Askanim

A few months back, Yisroel Besser posed the question in these pages: Where will the next generation of askanim come from and what can be done to nurture them? His article generated a great deal of discussion, but one aspect of the issue was not touched on by any of the discussants: How irrelevant the entire discussion would have struck most Torah Jews living in Israel.

Both the author and those who responded took it for granted that the term askan is one of high praise, connoting a person who serves the Klal by giving generously of both his time and money. Yet in Israel the term is almost always used pejoratively. Far from indicating someone who acts out of a lack of self-interest, it generally refers to someone who did not possess the necessary zitsfleish for long-term learning or the entrepreneurial skills to make it in business, and who instead cut out for himself a place on the periphery of a Torah leader or Knesset member to acquire a small fiefdom of power and influence.

What explains the differences in societal usage and norms? For one thing, the dominant social model in Israel for decades has been one … Read More >>

What Do Gaza and Ferguson Have in Common

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.) was challenged last week about her support for an additional appropriation of $225 million for Iron Dome. Her town meeting questioner, John Bangert, asked incredulously, how she could not see the connection between Ferguson and Gaza – i.e., guns being turned on innocent civilians.

Bangert is right about the connection between events in Gaza and those in Ferguson, Mo., but it is not exactly the one he had in mind. Both represent examples of journalistic malfeasance, the manufacture of a false narrative based on emphasizing certain facts and eliding others. In Ferguson, the narrative was that of an innocent black teenager gunned down by a white cop; in Gaza, one of Israel brutally bombing innocent Palestinian civilians.

The media described Michael Brown as a “gentle giant,” who was on his way to his grandmother’s house, just a few days short of the start of college, when he was shot six times by Officer Darren Wilson, despite being unarmed. Brown’s companion at the time of the shooting variously, described him as fleeing at the time of the shooting or as having his hands up.

That particular version of events did not long survive. The autopsy commissioned … Read More >>

Showing We Care

Two weeks ago, I was in Passaic for Shabbos. The main theme of my presentations in four shuls was the feeling of achdus in Israel, from the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students through Operation Protective Edge, and what can be done to preserve it. On Motzaei Shabbos, I spent several hours together with a group of alumni of Machon Shlomo and Machon Yaakov, two yeshivos for ba’alei teshuva in Har Nof.

One of those present asked me what I thought was the most important thing American Jews can do now for their brethren in Israel. He did not specify any particular kind of American Jews, or Israeli for that matter. I replied: Show them that you care about what is happening to them.

I’m not sure where that answer came from since I do not lack for remarkable organizations in Israel to recommend. Perhaps I was inspired by the widely distributed letter of Rabbi Shay Schacter, assistant rabbi of the White Shul in Lawrence, describing in poignant detail his four-day visit to Israel, as the emissary of Lawrence’s White Shul to convey condolences to the Shaer, Fraenkel, and Yifrach families and deliver letters of tanchumin from the congregation. … Read More >>

Achdus: An Appeal For Ideas

Many, many people were touched by the palpable sense of achdus during the 18 days in which we davened for the three abducted teens, and during the weeks of war that followed.

I know that groups of people have connected with each other (including “A-list” people in the charedi world), looking for practical ways to keep this spirit alive. Why, though, limit the discussion to these smaller groups? We’ve seen in the past that digitally turning to a wider audience has yielded great insight. We therefore ask you to think about ways in which to help bring disparate groups of Jews (especially disparate groups of Orthodox Jews) together. First and foremost, these methods should aim to increase respect (which is more than tolerance) for “others.”

I will start the process with a few ideas dealing specifically with the Orthodox community, and hope that they will jog the imagination of readers:

1) Research and find a tzedaka associated primarily with the “other” camp, and make regular, generous contributions [E.g. I would recommend JobKatif to readers on the charedi side]

2) Study a sefer that is associated with an important thinker of the other group

3) Spend time at an important …

Decommissioning Emunah

“But I will confess…” read the subject line in a recent e-mail from a dear friend, a very intelligent Jewish man who claims to be an atheist. In the message box the communication continued: “…that the continued existence of Jew-hatred… baffles me.”

“And,” my friend added, “I am not easily baffled.”

His comment was a reaction to a recent column that appeared in this space (which he saw electronically; he’s not yet a subscriber to Hamodia) that alluded to how powerful an argument for the Torah’s truth is the astounding, perplexing persistence of anti-Semitism.

If only my friend, and all Jews, would honestly and objectively consider that other, independent, anomalies also lead in the same direction.

Like the perseverance of the Jewish People itself, despite all the adversity it has faced and faces; like the uniqueness of the Torah’s recording of sins committed by its most venerated personalities, in such contrast to other religions’ fundamental texts; like the seemingly self-defeating laws the Torah commands, like shmitah and aliyah liregel , which no human would ever have decreed, as they put their observers in great danger; like the predictions the Torah makes that have come to pass, like … Read More >>

Modern Orthodoxy Can Do Better

As the demographic ground beneath the feet of American Jews continues to shift, old denominational definitions and self-understandings change as well. Dr. Baruch Brody offers a fresh approach to demarcating Modern Orthodoxy’s territory in the current issue of Hakira (Volume 17; Summer 2014). While his essay is a fascinating read that shows much thought and passion, it is a disappointment to those of us who want to see Modern Orthodoxy (MO) succeed, whether we fully identify with that community or not.

Future historians may very well divide American Jewish time into two eras: BP and AP, or Before Pew and After Pew. At least so it seems for some of us in the Orthodox world, who had long been making claims about where we were all going that were roundly ignored or rejected – till Pew. During the decades of the Orthodox renaissance after the Holocaust, we argued that time was on our side. Orthodoxy may have been treated condescendingly as the benighted step-child of the real Jews, but we knew better. All forms of Judaism not based on halachic commitment would prove unsustainable, we predicted, while Orthodoxy would grow and flourish. After Pew, more people are at … Read More >>

A Plaintive Cry (Or Two) For Understanding

by Moshe Shoshan

Over the past few years I have been conducting an on again, off again conversation with Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein via e-mail. My main purpose in conducting this dialog has been to come to a better understanding as to why even in moderate charedi forums such as Cross-Currents, there have been exceedingly few direct, strongly worded condemnations of the extreme, violent behaviour and rhetoric directed against the State of Israel, its government and Army as well as the Religious Zionist population. I refer not only to actions and words emanating from members of the more extreme communities affiliated with the Eidah Charedis, but also more mainstream charedi groups whose rhetoric and behaviour has become increasing strident and offensive to non-charedim.

To give but one example, last year, Chaim Walder, perhaps the most beloved religious children’s author in Israel, wrote an editorial the Hebrew Yated Ne’eman, the official organ of R. Steinman’s faction of the Yahadut ha-Torah political party. Walder’s column unequivocally and unapologetically compared Yair Lapid to Adolph Hitler yemach shemo ve-zichro. Rabbi Adlerstein and numerous other chareidim with who I am in contact agreed with me that such language is abhorrent, but no public condemnation … Read More >>

The Final Test?

Mrs. Esther Wein recently shared with me a dvar Torah that she heard many years ago from her grandfather Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l, which may have application to the rampant anti-Semitism that has exploded around the world in the wake of Operation Protective Edge.

Rabbi Schwab asked what average Egyptians did to merit the terrible punishments that befell them in the course of the plagues. And what was the nature of the individual judgment on those Egyptians who drowned at Yam Suf? After all, it was Pharaoh who refused to allow the bnei Yisrael to leave Egypt. Was every citizen of Egypt culpable for not have revolted against Pharaoh to force him to grant thebnei Yisrael permission to escape?

He answered that the litmus test for the average Egyptian came when Pharaoh added to the burden of the bnei Yisrael by requiring them to collect their own straw while retaining the same quota of bricks as before. The Jews, the Torah relates, had no choice but to fan out across Egypt in search of straw. Rabbi Schwab speculated that they were forced to knock on the doors of the Egyptians in their quest, and that the Egyptians were subsequently … Read More >>

Much Ado About Something

I suppose I should have realized something extraordinary was afoot when a friend messaged me on Facebook to ask if I was “okay.” I wondered what he meant, until he said that he’d heard I was being “picked on.”

While it is true that my post reflecting on the entertainment industry, in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, did get a lot of attention — I can’t say I felt I was being “picked on.” The first two responses were from people whose voices I have long respected, and whose comments were very favorable. Admittedly, this did not describe the comments of many others, but, as I’ll explain in a moment, that didn’t change my perception at all. But now that my friend Rabbi Shmuel Simanowitz, whose legal career included representing many musicians, decided to praise my post at a kiddush (money quote: “I can’t tell you how many clients’ funerals I’ve attended”), and my friend and former colleague (and noted Jewish musician) Rabbi Avraham Rosenblum has defended my perspective as well (though no, Avraham, I may indeed be “square,” but not at all as argued) I suppose some follow-up commentary is in order.

I would like …

Wanted: A New Mussar Movement

We are a long way from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, in which life seemed to changed little from century to century, until the first winds of the haskalah started blowing. In traditional Jewish society, in which most people lived and died within a narrow geographical radius of their place of birth, it could be safely predicted that the overwhelming majority of Jews would remain traditionally observant, to the extent of their knowledge, and that their children would as well.

But those insular, self-contained communities are no more. Not only have the physical ghetto walls fallen but so have the spiritual ghetto walls that we sought to erect in their place. The World-Wide Web has made sure of that. The effort to erect secure barriers and impermeable walls seems increasingly futile. In place of a chinuch chosem, an education that seeks to shut out all outside influences, we need a chinuch mechusan, one which vaccinates our young against the temptations of an ever more intrusive world.

In traditional society prior to the Haskalah, Jews did what they had done since time immemorial, or so it seemed. No great personal resources were required to follow in the paths of one’s … Read More >>

Bright Stars On The Jewish Horizon: The Tikvah Program For Yeshiva Men

We could have called it “Litvish-America’s Got Talent.” For those of us weary of worrying about the problems that plague the Torah community we love, it was a reassuring hug from Heaven.

The seventeen participants (selected from a pool about four times the size) who completed the week-long Tikvah Fund Program for Yeshiva Men demonstrated that the Olam HaTorah possesses young people of exceptional promise who can help lead the next generation of observant Jews. As one of the conveners of the program, I could have drowned in nachas. As a member of an older generation that takes pride in the yeshiva world but is mindful of the road-kill it has left behind at times, spending time in the company of these young men was Paradise Regained.

Less than two years ago, I began speaking to the Tikvah Fund, a Jewish but nondenominational group committed to providing politically and economically conservative leadership for the future. They understood the importance of including the Orthodox, whose demographic importance is now beyond cavil. To their credit, they also understood that the haredi cohort of the Orthodox community could not be left out of any strategic planning. To attract yeshiva participants, … Read More >>