Cross-Currents Enters World Politics

Which is the last thing I wanted or expected. I have avoided commenting on purely political issues, whether domestic or global. I’ve tried to be true to Cross-Current’s original self-imposed mandate of focusing on such issues only insofar as they illuminate Torah life, or where Torah thought can illuminate them. I do plenty of the pure politics and advocacy at my day job, and I try not to mix office and home.

So when I wrote a short while ago about Egyptian President Al-Sisi’s extraordinary remarks at Al-Azhar, my intention was only to draw a parallel between his concern for the image of his faith with what should be our parallel concern. And there I left it.

The message from David Benkof, a frum writer for The Daily Caller was therefore quite surprising to me. He had noticed the piece, and the editors were a bit miffed that Western press had ignored what to us seemed like an extremely important statement. Would I, they ask, tweak the piece for publication at The Daily Caller? And could I do it in about an hour or so?

My colleague and mentor Rabbi Abraham Cooper and I then scrambled to … Read More >>


Exodus Exegesis

Some interesting thoughts about Yetzias Mitzrayim that have been bouncing around in my head for a number of years can be read here.

Private Matters

It comes as something of a revelation to many to confront the Rambam’s treatment of kiddush Hashem, or “sanctification of Hashem’s name” for the first time. One definition of the concept in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 5:10 – perhaps its most essential one, has nothing to do with readiness to give up one’s life or to act in a way that presents a good image of a Jew to others.

To be sure, that the Torah commands us to be willing to perish rather than violate certain commandments (or any commandment – even custom – in certain circumstances) is well-known to most Jews with a modicum of Jewish knowledge. And the understanding that living an upstanding life, exemplifying honesty and sterling demeanor, is also a form of kiddush Hashem is likewise widely recognized. The Gemara in Yoma (86a) famously describes various amora’im’s examples of such projection of Jewish personal values, labeling them kiddushei Hashem.

What is surprising is the Rambam’s statement that kiddush Hashem is something that can be accomplished as well entirely in private. In fact, particularly in private.

“Anyone who violates, willingly, without any coercion, any of the precepts of the Torah…” reads the Rambam’s psak, “has … Read More >>

We Owe an Answer

President Reuven Rivlin made an important speech opening a conference on chareidi employment sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee two weeks ago. He began by pointing out that the 20% of the school children in Israel between first and sixth grade are now in chareidi educational frameworks.

The chareidim are no longer a beleaguered minority, their very survival at stake, said the President, but this fact has not yet registered either with the chareidi community or its opponents. We have gone too long without “changing the tape,” as if nothing has changed from the early days of the state, said Rivlin. What is needed now, he argued, is a partnership of equals between chareidim and non-chareidim.

Much of what President Rivlin had to say will be music to chareidi ears. He strongly criticized the 19th Knesset for the discussion of chareidim. He pointed out that efforts at coercion had backfired miserably and only succeeded in triggering a backlash resulting in fewer chareidim in the IDF and lessened chareidi involvement in the economy. “When one group feels that their world and cultural existence is under threat, it will not lead to a breakthrough in the relations, but a withdrawal. I … Read More >>

Remaining Bnei Torah after Kollel

Few issues are of greater significance for the future of the chareidi community in Eretz Yisrael than the status of those young (and not so young) men in transition between kollel and either the workplace or academic/vocational training in preparation for work. The numbers of such men increases from year to year..

The primary impetus for leaving kollel is economic, Low child benefits by Western standards, small kollel stipends, increased tuitions, skyrocketing housing prices for young couples, and the exhaustion of any accumulated wealth from previous generations combine to put most chareidi families under great financial strain, even when the mother works.

Yet even for a family struggling to put food on the table, the decision to leave kollel is often an extremely painful one. First and foremost, there is the dramatically reduced time for Torah learning. Then there is the loss of one’s carefully nurtured identity as a kollel yungerman. A man’s status in the eyes of his wife, his children, his wider family, and the community of Torah learners with which he identifies comes under threat.

There will inevitably be those who try to convince the former yungerman that his departure from kollel is a form of … Read More >>

Interesting Dialogue in Dialogue

Sometimes, you just have to use strong words.

I imagine that was the intention of Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, in a critical conversation that he had with someone described as “the president of one of the largest secular Jewish organizations in America, as he relates the encounter in the new issue of Dialogue. Some gvir told Rav Feldman that the poor bloke (whom we shall refer to as SF, for secular fellow) was in free-fall in the aftermath of Gaza, and needed “urgently to talk to a Rabbi.”

How could it be, asked SF, that a bunch of primitive terrorists could send thousands of rockets into Israel, thwart the full effectiveness of one of the most capable military machines in the world, and then get the world to label Israel as the aggressor for simply attempting to defend herself?

Rav Feldman’s answer must have been devastating to SF’s world view. He cited Devarim 32:21 הם קנאוני בלא אל כעסוני בהבליהם ואני אקניאם בלא עם / They angered Me by believing in a non-god; I will anger them through a non-nation. “Israel is founded on belief in a non-god,” Rav Feldman told him, by which he explains … Read More >>

Greed Is Gross

The carnival of carnage that seems a constant in the Islamic world proceeded tragically apace last week, with a suicide bombing at a gathering in Ibb, Yemen to commemorate Islam’s founder’s birthday. At least 23 people were killed; an Al Qaeda affiliate is the suspected culprit.

Then, over in Afghanistan, at least 26 people attending a wedding party were killed, and 45 wounded, when a rocket struck a house during a firefight between government forces and Taliban insurgents.

But what might rank as the week’s most senseless loss of life took place in a non-Islamic land, China. At least 35 people were killed and 43 injured during a stampede in an area of Shanghai where tens of thousands had gathered to celebrate the advent of a new calendar year.

The cause of that disaster is unclear, but it was reported that shortly before the crowd had grown restless, people in a nearby building had dropped green pieces of paper that looked like American $100 bills.

Now, there’s an awful metaphor for our covetous times. The pursuit of money is nothing new, of course. It has been the engine powering many a civilization, and the rot destroying many a human … Read More >>

Yesh Atid, Elazar Stern, and the religious status quo

About two weeks ago, Binyanei Haummah in Jerusalem hosted a Rabbinic conference regarding the aggressive legislative action taken during the reign of the recently fallen government in matters pertaining to State and religion.

The organization responsible for the gathering (called Libah Yehudit) put out this clip:

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/PMt5-G20hT0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

Prominently featured are Yesh Atid MKs Aliza Lavi, who states at a Conservative conference that she cannot go as far as she would like to make changes because she would otherwise lose her legitimacy within the Orthodox world and thus have no political clout; Yair Lapid, who proclaims at a Reform gathering that he will work toward granting the heterodox equal religious footing; and Shai Piron, who retracts his statement that a homosexual couple is not a family and lists his accomplishments on behalf of LGBT recognition in Israel.

The Power of Personal Testimony

by David Mandel

[Editor’s note: This video is groundbreaking in its courage, impact, and ability to make us direct, rather than avert, our glance from yet another problem we have been silent about for too long. It requires no introduction, but David Mandel, one of the most important personalities our community is blessed with in attending to the needs of those who have nowhere else to turn, was kind enough to offer some introductory thoughts.]

Imagine you were mugged and robbed of your most precious jewels. The bodily injury you suffered will heal. The loss of your family’s ancestry represented in your mothers ring and necklace and your fathers watch is irreplaceable. It is causing you emotional torment. It has been in the family four generations.

The mugger is caught. The jewels are not found. He is convicted and sent to jail.

How should you react now? Are you a victim of a mugging? Are you a survivor of a mugging? How long do you remain angry or feel responsible for the loss of an important family history? Was it indeed your fault even if it was not?

Elisheva was the victim of a mugging and … Read More >>

Sisi’s Remarkable Statement

We knew that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has it in for the Muslim Brotherhood, and has taken strong steps to suppress it. We did not expect the president of the most populous Arab country to call for a religious revolution against Muslim extremism, and back it up with specific programs through his religious ministry.

Western media ignored the statement in droves. We shouldn’t.

Speaking before Al-Azhar and the Awqaf Ministry on New Year’s Day, 2015, in connection with Mohamed’s upcoming birthday, Sisi said:

I am referring here to the religious clerics. We have to think hard about what we are facing—and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before. It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!

That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] … Read More >>

Leaf Bag Lesson

An aroma all but absent these days but deeply evocative of childhood to many of us who grew up before pollution laws is the bouquet of burning leaves. Back in the day, we would rake the dry debris of autumn into a pile or put it into a metal trash can (remember those?) and set the leaves aflame. The resultant smoke, at least at somewhat of a distance, was a seasonal perfume, an olfactory hint that the snow days weren’t far off.

Today we put what we’ve raked into very large double-reinforced paper “lawn bags” and leave them for the recycling pickup. (I don’t imagine they put the leaves back on trees, but surely something worthwhile is done with them.)

A few weeks ago, while I was doing the final leaf-raking of the year, the lawn bag I was filling provided me some timely spiritual direction.

I needed the chizuk, and for a reason not unrelated to how distant a memory the scent of burning leaves is, to how many years have elapsed since it would regularly waft through the autumn air.

Having several months ago passed the 60-year life-mark (the “new 40,” as I prefer to imagine … Read More >>

Lessons in Emunah from…Professional Wrestling

UN Condemnations

We often get frustrated by the gross prevalence and utter, unfathomable irrationality of anti-Semitism (commonly also cloaked as anti-Zionism). The above chart says it all.

“If only we could more clearly remind the world of the good that the Jews have brought it; if only the world realized that Judaism is the source of Western moral values; if only the world would understand that Israel is fighting more humanely than any military known to man, defending itself against unprovoked attacks from its malicious neighbors who seek its annihilation…” We can’t understand why the world hates us and cannot see things with a modicum of objectivity. It can be so upsetting.

Rabbi Avi Shafran recently penned a beautiful and brilliant column, When I Drifted Off the Path, in which he described his very short-lived pre-adolescent flirtation with heresy. In order to briefly address the points about anti-Semitism raised in the above paragraphs, I would like to share and draw from one of my own juvenile, inelegant interests: professional wrestling. Tampa, Florida, where I grew up, was once the South’s capital of professional wrestling, and … Read More >>

פרסומי ניסא – Publicizing the Miracle(s)

One of the highlights of Chanukah in Washington Heights is the candlelighting at K’hal Adath Jeshurun (KAJ/”Breuer’s”) and the singing of Maoz Tzur by the KAJ choir between Mincha and Maariv. (Please click here, here and here for videos.) This event, aside from being inherently inspiring, undoubtedly inspires various thoughts and feelings on the part of all who attend.

Here are a few of the things that come to mind each year at this time as I look across KAJ and reflect:

That there is probably no other congregation on earth whose history is so identified with Chanukah. An unswervingly devoted group of about a dozen Orthodox Jews who struggled to preserve Torah in Germany almost a century and a half ago in the face of unprecedented assimilation, hiring a dynamic, unapologetic rav and master spokesman (R. Samson Raphael Hirsch) as its leader and seceding from the religiously-compromised communal structure, to emerge as the primary and leading force of Torah in Western Europe, quickly developing into a major congregation of hundreds of families with an extensive chinuch system, igniting a glorious renewal and … Read More >>

What Can We Do for Them?

I suspect that most of us if asked, “What can we do for those murdered in Kehillat Bnei Torah?” would be hard pressed to answer. We might mention contributing to the families of those slain, but for the pure korbonos themselves, we would be stumped. After all, they are already in the Olam HaEmes far beyond our reach. If pressed, we might come up with learning mishnayos or some other good deed l’ilui nishmasam (for the elevation of their souls), but nothing more than we might do for anyone who passed away.

These various responses, however, fail to take account of the sudden, shocking manner of their deaths, and the worldwide attention that they garnered, first and foremost among Torah observant Jews. In a hesped for Rabbi Moshe Twersky, H”yd, at the end of shiva, his brother Rabbi Meir Twersky distinguished between different forms of dying al Kiddush Hashem. In some cases, an otherwise ordinary and incomplete life might be somehow redeemed by the manner of its ending. But with respect to his brother, he said, the death al Kiddush Hashem, was the natural culmination or fulfillment of a life lived al Kiddush Hashem.

Rabbi Moshe Twersky himself seems … Read More >>

Candles and Candor

A non-Orthodox writer recently reached out to ask if I would participate in a panel discussion about Chanukah. The other panelists would be non-Orthodox clergy.

While I cherish every opportunity to interact with Jews who live different lives from my own, I had to decline the invitation, as I have had to do on other similar occasions. I explained that my policy with regard to such kind and appreciated invitations is a sort of passive “civil-disobedience” statement of principle, “intended as an alternative to shouting from the rooftops that we don’t accept any model of ‘multiple Judaisms.’ So, instead, [I] opt to not do anything that might send a subtle or subliminal message to the contrary.”

“Sorry,” I added, “Really. But I do deeply appreciate your reaching out on this.”

The extender of the invitation, Abby Pogrebin, was a guest in the Shafran sukkah this past Chol Hamoed. Both my wife and I were impressed with both her good will and her desire to learn more about traditional Jewish life and beliefs. In fact, she is currently writing a series of articles for the secular Jewish paper the Forward on her experiences observing (in both the word’s senses) all … Read More >>

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 … Read More >>

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, … Read More >>

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 >>