Musings on the Passing of an Isha Gedolah

by Dovid Kornreich

I was waiting until the passing of her Sheloshim to see what the blogworld would have to say about Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky’s life and unique impact on the Chareidi world before I ventured to speak my mind. To my surprise, there was nothing on the web beyond the regular online Jewish news outlet coverage and obituary-type blogposts.

Well, perhaps it is too premature to evaluate the Rebbetzin’s historical impact on Chareidi society so soon after her sudden passing, and perhaps it is inappropriate to first discuss sociology and not first express the depth of the loss of such a woman to us.

But in light of the raging blog-controversy over Open Orthodoxy’s feminist agenda, it seems that a post on the subject is timely, relevant, and important.

It is too important to let the moment pass without taking the opportunity to highlight the deep contrast in the different Orthodox societies’ responses to feminism — which the late Rebbetzin brought subtly into focus.

It is my hope that this seemingly aloof analysis of Rebbetzin Kanievsky’s unique position in Jewish society will be a catalyst to further admiration of Chareidi society, dispel harmful myths, and … Read More >>


The Legacy of Alter Chanoch Jeger, a”h

Two months ago, I spent Shabbos with my friend Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginsburg and his family in Cedarhurst. We were joined by the Ginzburgs’ daughter Ilana and son-in-law Yudi Jeger, and their children Alter Hanoch Henoch, 2 1/2, and Shua, ten months.

I had previously read about Alter Hanoch in a powerful article by his grandfather entitled, “It’s not supposed to be like this,” written in response to requests addressed to Rabbi Ginzburg for help in understanding horrible tragedies, especially those involving children. The power of the piece derives from Rabbi Ginzburg’s revelation in the last paragraph that he is writing while sitting in the intensive care unit by the bed of his infant grandson Alter Hanoch, who contracted meningitis within twenty-four hours of birth and has no hope of developing normally.

During my Shabbos in Cedarhurst, Alter Hanoch was attached to an elaborate machine, which rang intermittently. I did not see him open his eyes once. Yudi and Ilana went about attending to Alter Hanoch in a totally matter-of-fact fashion, without any sense of being burdened and no trace of a feeling that they had been dealt the short stick in life. Just a normal kollel couple: he … Read More >>

Running, Racism and Resentment

When I recounted seeing a small group of unusually dressed men in shul last Sunday in Staten Island and realizing that they were trying to catch a minyan before participating in the New York Marathon (which begins in that borough), my daughter asked me if any of them had a chance of winning the race.

“Nah,” I said. “It’ll be a Kenyan.” Four of the New York race’s past ten men’s race winners, after all, hailed from that African country. Actually, make that five now. (Congratulations, Geoffery Mutai.) A fellow Kenyan came in second.

My daughter’s face, I thought, evidenced some surprise, as if I had espoused some rank racism. So I explained that Kenyans seem particularly physically endowed for long-distance running. Kenyans, that is, and Ethiopians (another citizenry with disproportionate wins in marathons) who belong to the lithe and limber Kalenjin tribe.

If believing that different populations have different abilities constitutes racism, I guess I am a racist. But the word’s pejorative meaning is more properly reserved for assigning negative human character traits—like dishonesty, laziness, drunkenness, or untrustworthiness—to particular racial or ethnic groups. People have free will, of course, and every individual should be judged on his … Read More >>

Exercising the Empathy Muscle

Politicians are often subject to derision, often for good reason. Recently, though, a Catholic cleric hurled an unusual and creative insult at local politicos: They are like Jews.

Edward Gilbert, the leader of the Catholic Church in Port of Spain, the capital of the southern Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, made the comparison between elected officials and “the original Jewish people,” explaining that Jews, at least in ancient times, cared only about their own.

“The Jews were compassionate and caring to the people of their nation, to the people of their race…,” Archbishop Gilbert reportedly said during an October 24 religious ceremony commemorating the 225th anniversary of the Roman Catholic presence on Trinidad. Christianity, he proudly asserted, “universalized the concept of love.”

Predictably, the Anti-Defamation League protested the sermon, calling Mr. Gilbert’s statements “a disturbing repackaging of ancient anti-Jewish canards and supersessionist beliefs.” The American Jewish Committee chimed in with chiding of its own, contending that “such prejudicial comments not only reflect personal ignorance, but also ignorance of the teaching of the Catholic Church since Nostra Aetate.” That was a reference to the Vatican II declaration repudiating the centuries-old “deicide” charge against all Jews, stressing the religious bond … Read More >>

The Ugly Side of Idealism

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, P.J. O’Rourke described the mass murder as “an act of idealism.” Not idealism as we colloquially use the term to refer to the ability to place other values over one’s immediate self-interest, but rather “the concept that mankind and society could and should be perfected.” That vision of a perfected society causes O’Rourke’s idealists to ignore the human costs of the coercion required to create their ideal society.

The 9/11 hijackers were driven by an older theological vision of a world-wide caliphate under the harmonious rule of Sharia. But most modern idealists derive their inspiration from the Enlightenment view that unfettered human knowledge is capable of determining, according to O’Rourke, “exactly what humans and their politics and their economics and even their home lives should look like.” Popular historian Paul Johnson, for instance, places the blame for most of the atrocities of the last two centuries on the doorstep of Jean-Jacques Rousseau for teaching that man is naturally good so, naturally, it’s good to force him to be so.

The utopian hope of societal perfection and the desirability of bringing that society into existence holds special allure for intellectuals, for who else is … Read More >>

Celebrating Diversity

I was also at a Shiva this week — a member of our community lost his brother, who lived in Israel, after a long illness. Their family is from Iraq, and praying in his home offered the opportunity to both hear the prayers and learn more about the minhagim, customs, of the Sepharadim, Middle-Eastern Jewry.

Baltimore may not be Brooklyn, but there are synagogues that are Belz, Satmar, Lubavitch, Persian, Sephardic and of course many praying in Nusach Ashkenaz, all within a one-mile radius (and I believe that there is a true Minhag Ashkenaz minyan as well). That offers an opportunity of which I think too few of us avail ourselves.

In the Sephardic tradition, Hagbah — holding the Torah up and open for all to see — is done before the Torah reading. The Torah, in a cylindrical wooden case, is removed from the Ark, the case is opened, and the Torah is paraded to the Bimah. The tunes, of course, are elegant and distinctly Middle-Eastern, in a minor key.

German Jewry enters the Amidah of each holiday evening service by singing Kaddish (starting with the verse VaYidaber Moshe… as said on Yom Tov) in a regal … Read More >>

Rewriting the Past

Bar Ilan University Milton scholar William Kolbrener has a profound meditation on Yom Kippur and teshuva (repentance) in his new collection of essays, Open Minded Torah. He begins by noting a profound distinction between the Jewish and Christian view of repentance. In the latter view, man’s innate depravity is too great to be overcome by his own actions. Only the intervention of an intermediary, in the form of Jesus, can “expiate,” in Milton’s words, man’s “Treason.”

In the Jewish view, the possibility of teshuva was implanted in the Creation even before the beginning of time, for without the possibility of teshuva mankind could not exist. But man is not the passive recipient of a Divine dispensation. He is the key actor in the teshuva process. That is nicely captured in Rabbi Akiva’s image of G-d as the Mikve (purifying waters) in which the penitent Israel immerses. G-d creates the conditions that make purification of sins possible, but it is man who is the active agent and must immerse himself.

Rosh Hashanah brings us back to the beginning of human history – to the Divine breath, the nishmat chayim (breath of life) that Hashem blew into Adam’s nostrils. The blasts … Read More >>

Meaningless Ritual

The original founders of the “Jewish Friends of Reform,” in Germany of 1843, invited to join them “all who do not accord any authority or obligatory power to the confused and frequently meaningless rabbinical interpretations and injunctions, all who strive for a form of faith whose enlivening principle is pure Mosaism.” They were supposed to place ethics before ritual.

Not even 200 years later, a national news article on the eve of Yom Kippur is devoted — to our shoes. Specifically, what sort of footwear a Jew might wear, because of “ambivalence” about this ritual. Personally, I’m with Howard Sklamberg, who couldn’t conscience the sight of someone driving up to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and getting out wearing sneakers. He just, unfortunately, went the wrong way in resolving this obvious paradox, giving up the sneakers instead of, apparently, his car.

The article neatly juxtaposes two Jewish clergy, which for these purposes the Chabad Rebbetzin certainly is. The Senior Rabbi of a large Reform Temple is quoted as contemplating the non-leather shoes she would like to go out and buy, if she has time, though only “some” of her heels have been synthetic in the past. Meanwhile, the wife … Read More >>

Litigious Society, or Litigious Road to Anarchy?

Here is a short course on how you personally can help destroy the economy. First, find an obscure clause in a federal regulation which legally prohibits something in the business to consumer relationship, although it currently affects no one. Then, find companies to sue because they are unaware of this detail of the regulation, claiming to have been personally damaged.

This is the methodology being employed by a Baltimore County resident, who is suing three bars for having “willfully violated” the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, by having the audacity to print the expiration date of his credit card on his personal sales receipt.

It is correct that to do so violates the act. It is also true, however, that as of the date of its enactment, and to my knowledge even today, the expiration date of a credit card isn’t actually validated — you can try this the next time you do an online transaction, by claiming an arbitrary future expiration date on an otherwise valid card. And even if I am wrong about that, it is certainly, as said by a consumer advocate with the US Public Interest Research Group, “a minor fraud … Read More >>

Who Will Live?

Shortly after the end of World War II, a modern-looking young man, sporting a large chup, was brought to the Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l, in one of the displaced persons camps. “I heard that before the war you were the top bochur in the Munkacs Yeshiva,” the Rebbe said to him. “What happened to you?”

“I saw that the best were burned, and only the p’soles (chaff) remained,” the former yeshiva bochur replied.

“You are so right,” the Rebbe answered him. “The best were burned and only the p’soles remained.” Then the Rebbe, who had himself lost his wife and eleven children during the war, burst out crying. The two remained there a half an hour or more sobbing together.

Later, the young man returned to full religious observance. Of his return, he said, “Had the Rebbe given me one word of tochachah (reproof), I would have walked out and never returned. But he just cried with me.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that phrase – “the best were burned and only the p’soles remained.” As a statement of fact, there are, of course, thousands of counterexamples – great tzaddikim, like the Klausenberger Rebbe himself, who survived all … Read More >>

A Daily Dose of Kindness

On August 9, 2001, a suicide bomber detonated himself in the Sbarro Pizza parlor in downtown Jerusalem, killing or wounding over 100. Among those killed was Shoshana Greenbaum, a religious school teacher from Los Angeles, in her early 30s, who was expecting her first child. (She was also her parents’ only child.) Her husband, Shmuel, who was not with her that day, describes himself as going from the being the happiest man in the world, married to the most wonderful woman, to the loneliest.

To maintain his sanity, Shmuel dedicated himself to promoting acts of kindness, large and small, and sending out A Daily Dose of Kindness emails detailing such acts to a list that eventually grew to two million. (A collection of A Daily Dose of Kindness dealing only with examples in Israel is available through the Partners in Kindness website.) To the question he is frequently asked – How can you continue to believe in Hashem after what happened to you? – Shmuel always offers the same answer: “After reading about acts of kindness and G-dliness every day and doing acts of kindness myself, how can I not believe in G-d?”

Out of his unbearable tragedy, … Read More >>

On Turning Sixty

The sixtieth birthday is a big one Jews for it means that one has avoided at least one of the definitions of karet ­­– premature death. And with it one is officially welcomed into the ranks of zikna, old age (Avos 5:25), however unworthy one may feel of admission just yet.

At fifty, I joked that I was now too old to die young. Now, I’m even too old for a mid-life crisis.

I can’t say that I feel old. But I’m acutely aware that no one looks at me anymore in terms of potential. If one’s company goes bust or law firm closes its doors, new employers will not likely rush to hire someone of sixty, certainly not at previous levels of remuneration. But at least for now, I’m still more worried about finding the time to complete current projects than about not having any more projects

Other than finding it hard to believe that a decade has passed since I wrote “On Turning Fifty” – the passage of time seems to accelerate sharply with advancing years – my chief feeling on this latest milestone is gratitude. One of the greatest political put-downs I ever heard was former … Read More >>

Mayor Abutbol – Say No to Extremism

In September 1998, a two-room school opened up in Tzoran, a residential community of 1,500 young families, nestled among the agricultural settlements east of Netanya, for 25 six and seven-year-olds. When they arrived at school that first day, the young children were confronted by a chanting mob of 60 adults, some of whom had tied attack dogs to the school gates. Despite the heat, the principal had no choice but to close the windows, as curses and stones rained down on the school.

The same scene was repeated every morning for the first months of the schools existence, and the school was defaced and repeatedly vandalized over the course of the year. The purpose of the demonstrators was to terrorize little children by forcing them to run a daily gauntlet of verbal abuse and physical menace.

The confrontation in Tzoran was not widely reported in the Israeli press, certainly not compared to the efforts by a group of religious extremists to prevent the opening of a national religious girls in Beit Shemesh last week, on a plot long designated for the school and lying adjacent to both haredi and national religious neighborhoods.

But Tzoran has a lot to do … Read More >>

A Survivor Speaks Out

by Pinny Taub

I reached a point that I cannot sit idly by and watch how the Jewish people are being stepped on, day in and day out, by none other than people who call themselves Orthodox Jews. The chillul Hashem (Desecration of G-d’s Name) that is being created is beyond words. The kind of garbage that is being thrown on our gedolim (leading Rabbis) and holy organizations has not happened since the days of the pogroms and it’s all coming from within. It hurts me to write this to the very same people I once believed were protectors of abuse victims in the Jewish community. It hurts me even more to write to the very same people I once called very dear friends and believed were helping my brothers and sisters in pain.

What is important is the truth coming from my broken heart.

I am Pinny Taub, who is a survivor of one of the most horrific crimes that has happened to a Jew by a Jew. My story is known and is not important to repeat at this time. Despite all that, I decided that I would not be a victim anymore and I would … Read More >>

No One Wants to Wash the Dishes

“Everybody wants social justice, but no one wants to help Mom with the dishes,” writes University of Haifa economics professor Steven Plaut of Israel’s current social protests. I suppose he is saying that left-wing politics do not a better person make. Indeed they often serve as a salve for a guilty conscience: Witness President Obama’s 2008 fundraising triumphs among rapacious Wall Street executives. The great thing about bumper stickers like, “Save the whales” or “Justice for Palestine” is that they proclaim one’s moral grandeur, without demanding anything of the owner of the car.

Many years ago, my Dad, a”h, taught me this lesson. During my senior year in high school, I organized a large fundraising campaign for starving Biafrans (the proceeds of which I promptly gave away to a con woman from the South Side of Chicago.) One Sunday during that campaign, I mentioned to my father that I had been late for a class at our synagogue that morning. He was pouring batter into the waffle iron at the time, and without even looking up, he said, “You are so busy saving the world, but you can’t show someone the common courtesy of getting to his class on … Read More >>

Sign of the Times

The New York Times descent into pure advocacy journalism continues apace. Increasingly, the news stories in the once respected Grey Lady serve only to set up the talking points for the paper’s editorial page.

Reporter Scott Shane’s July 24 news story, “Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S.,” provides a case in point. The only spotlight is one of Shane’s own imagining. He describes Robert Spencer, who was cited 64 times in Anders Behring Breivik’s 1500-page manifesto, as having been put on the “defensive” by Breivik’s murderous rampage. Yet he does not quote one statement from Spencer or anyone else sounding the slightest bit defensive. Nor does he argue that Breivik’s actions somehow demonstrate that the warnings are overblown or based on incorrect facts — i.e., that those quoted have anything about which to be defensive.

Shane cites unnamed “critics” who supposedly used the Norwegian tragedy to demonstrate the manner in which “the intense spotlight on the threat of attacks from Islamic militants has unfairly vilified Muslim Americans, while dangerously playing down the threats of attacks from other domestic radicals.” Yet he offers not one shred of evidence about the comparative threat. As for the impact of the … Read More >>

Can We Talk Honestly?

A few months back, a group of national religious rebbetzins set off one of those two-day media storms for which Israel is famous when they issued a public call for Jewish girls not to socialize with Arabs. Charges of racism immediately poured down on their head. (The issue has come to the fore once more with allegations that at least one store in a national chain forced Arab workers to sign an agreement not to fraternize with female Jewish employees.)

That earlier storm was not without heavy doses of hypocrisy. Some of the Arab spokesmen who denounced rebbetzins’ letter as proof of the endemic racism of Israeli society would kill their own daughters if they were dating a Jew.

The rebbetzins were not addressing themselves to women working in hi-tech and suggesting that they should refuse to work on projects together with an Arab graduate of the Technion or avoid normal collegial relations with Arab co-workers. They were talking about teenage Jewish girls, often very young teenagers, becoming “involved” with Arab men. How many Jewish Israelis, if they are being honest with themselves, would really feel indifferent to their own daughter’s involvement in such a relationship? If she were 12?

By now, we have all seen enough videos of Jewish women rescued by Yad L’Achim from Arab villages — some even from the Gaza Strip — to know that the story can turn out very badly. Some of us have even visited hostels for the women thus rescued and their children and heard their stories. I spent the afternoon of the 17th of Tammuz watching videos of Jewish girls describing their relationships with Arab men at the offices of the Learn and Live organization, a fitting way to spend the fast.

When they were dating, their Arab boyfriends could not shower them with enough gifts, could not stop telling them how much they loved them. Once married, they find themselves imprisoned, cut off from their families, watched constantly by their husbands and his family members, who threaten them – quite credibly – that they will kill them if they try to escape. Often they are treated as little more than chattel.

They are viewed as slatterns by the women of the village, and their children are never allowed to forget their Jewish origins. Often those children become the most vehement Jew haters, as a means of overcoming the stigma of their origins. When fighting breaks out between Israel and the Palestinians, the women may be beaten by their husbands, even attacked with an axe, as scapegoats for the Jewish people.

WE ARE NOT TALKING about a small phenomenon. The Ministry of Interior estimates that there are between 10,000-20,000 children of Jewish mothers and Arab fathers in Israel. And that number does not include those living in the Gaza Strip or the Palestinian Authority, and may not include those whose mothers converted to Islam when they married. (When the women convert, their chances of keeping their children, even if they manage to escape, are reduced because all divorce proceedings are governed by Islamic law.) A recent Jerusalem Post article on the situation in Jerusalem’s Pisgat Zev neighborhood spoke of sixty Jewish girls who have disappeared into Arab villages over the last ten years, most never to be heard from again.

And the problem is growing. Continue reading → Can We Talk Honestly?

Another Take on Baseless Hatred

As we contemplate our role in rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash, in this period of mourning for its loss, we each have to come to grips with sinas chinam (literally, free hatred), which Chazal identify as the cause of that destruction. Most frequently, the term is defined as “causeless hatred,” which has always left me somewhat puzzled because very few people will ever admit to hating someone for no reason at all. No doubt the host who hated Bar Kamtza could have offered a long list of reasons justifying his hatred.

Rene Levy, a religious professor emeritus of neuropharmacology at the University of Washington, offers another possible explanation in Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do About It (Gefen Publishing House). In his description, sinas chinam is that part of the strong negative feelings we might have about another Jew that is excessive.

We hold our anger too long; we do not take the steps recommended by the Torah to deal with our hatred, for instance, by airing our grievance with the one who has angered us; we spread hatred among Jews through our gossip about the object of our hatred; or we fail to balance our … Read More >>

Dr. Middos is Not Just for Kids

Rabbi Chaim Vital asks a fascinating question: Why does the Torah not specifically command us to avoid negative middos like anger or to develop those associated with the talmidim of Avraham Avinu (Avos 5:19) – a good eye, humble spirit, and restrained soul? He answers that these middos precede the Torah itself, for without them one cannot truly be an acceptor of the Torah.

The above-cited Mishnah in Avos states that the distinction between those who enjoy the fruits of this world and inherit the world to come depends on whether they are the students of Avraham Avinu or Bilaam. And that depends on the possession of the three middos enumerated in the Mishnah. In other words, even one who is meticulous in the observance of every mitzvah in the Torah, will inherit Gehinnom and descend into a pit of destruction if he is lacking the three qualities mentioned, for he has not truly accepted the Torah.

Rabbeinu Yonah in his commentary to Avos describes the three positive middos mentioned in the Mishnah as the essence of all good middos. Their presence makes possible the interrelatedness of all beings in the world in the way that Hashem intended; and … Read More >>

Not Getting What We Didn’t Pay For

Last week, as the mercury soared to record highs across much of the United States, electrical demand rose with the temperature as air-conditioning systems ran full blast. Years ago, Baltimore Gas & Electric created a program called Peak Rewards, intended to help reduce demand when it neared capacity. Roughly 453,000 customers (including the Menkens) were given remotely programmable thermostats with free installation — and a catch: when necessary, BGE could shut off our air-conditioning compressors for 50%, 75% or even 100% of each hour during extraordinary situations. And for years, those customers were rewarded with monthly credits on their electricity bills during the summer months, whether or not the system was ever activated.

On Friday, the system was activated — and people reacted as if they’d been coerced rather than given hundreds of dollars to participate in the program. Among the more intemperate [sic] remarks given to the Baltimore Sun: “What outrages me is there’s no alternative for people in special circumstances.”

There was, of course, always an alternative: not participating in the program. I’m not saying that it wasn’t uncomfortable; our upstairs thermostat reported temperatures in the high-80s by 5 pm. But “Peak Rewards” was designed for … Read More >>

Jews and Civilization

Tonight, the 26th day of Tammuz in the Hebrew year 5771, is my father’s ninth yahrzeit. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think mournfully of all the questions I would like to ask him and all the conversations I would like to have, remembering so much of what I learned from him and yet thinking that it was pitifully little, considering the genius and great-heartedness of that extraordinary man, R’ Nachman Bulman, of blessed memory. He is to this day so longed-for and so deeply missed by so many people, as I well know from many of his students and former congregants.

I have not written here in a long time, for various reasons. But tonight, in my father’s honor, my heart urges me to talk about some of the beliefs that my father held most dear. My father believed passionately in Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE), the very ancient Torah understanding that was given more modern and eloquent expression in the 19th century writings of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. TIDE refers to Torah together with civilization or Torah together with secular pursuits or Torah together with courtesy and humanity. It is hard to define exactly in a short essay but let me talk about one aspect of TIDE.

We who believe in TIDE believe that one of the reasons that Hashem scattered us among the nations, in addition to the obvious fact that this is a punishment for our sins (foretold in the Torah), is that we are meant to be an ohr lagoyim, a Light to the Nations. We are also a blessing to the nations, also foretold in multiple places in the Torah. It was we Jews who introduced monotheism and morality to the world and we have indeed blessed the nations among whom we live in ways too numerous even to begin to detail.

Now, there is another school of thought within Orthodoxy which rejects TIDE and which holds that we have no responsibility towards the nations, other than to be basically law-abiding citizens, and that we should have as little to do with them as possible.

In Poland and Russia over the last few centuries, the goyim were mostly drunken, ignorant peasants who regularly slaughtered and robbed Jews. The Jews in those countries were so far above the goyim in every respect that it is no wonder they developed a contempt for the peasants around them. In addition, there was a fundamental lawlessness, with laws purposely designed to destroy Jewish lives and livelihoods and with authorities turning a blind eye to pogroms and depredations conducted by the gentiles against Jews. In such societies, it was inevitable that Jews would learn to live by their wits and would find every possible way around, under, and despite the laws (which were an anti-Semitic farce), simply to survive.

Unfortunately, when the Russian and Polish (and Ukrainian and Romanian, etc) Jews came to America, many transplanted here an attitude of contempt and disdain towards the non-Jews around them, along with an attitude that one has to work the system in any way possible in order to survive.

By contrast, 19th century Germany, where Hirsch lived and wrote, was a highly civilized country in which Jews had gone a long way towards legal and political emancipation and in which most of the surrounding goyim were educated and refined people. Of course we know how that played out, and thus we internalized another lesson: as long as we live as a small minority in foreign lands, we always have to watch our backs.

Nevertheless, there are many righteous gentiles and we owe them our friendship and gratitude. And when we live in such a malchus shel chessed as America is—such a benevolent country—we owe the gentiles around us a great deal. It behooves us to bring blessing to them and not curses, chas vesholom, to the best of our ability. This is the more true because this is a country in which we have the legal right to vote, to speak and to write, to make our voices heard. Continue reading → Jews and Civilization

No Winners in the Torat Hamelech Controversy

About twenty years ago, I publicly debated a rabbi associated with the circles around Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook at the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center, on the topic “Vengeance – Divine or Human?” As the debate went on, I found myself increasingly shocked by his willingness to rely on quotations pulled from the aggadata sections of the Torah to reach legal conclusions, which, if implemented, would have immense implications for Jews around the world, and his confidence that we live in an era in which Jews can say and do whatever they want in the Land of Israel without fear of how those words and actions will be received by the gentile world.

I have not read Torat Hamelech, and cannot comment on its contents. But Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, the most prominent living halachic decisor, has condemned the work on for reasons similar to those that shocked me in that long ago debate – it places Jews around the world in danger. And Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, the son-in-law of the late halachic giant Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, withdrew his letter of approbation from the book because of “certain conclusions that are not halachically correct” and others that defy … Read More >>

“Some people think Army is Yeshiva”

The question of why the Haredi community tends to avoid or minimize IDF service is one with multiple facets, one of which is the ongoing hostility of the IDF towards Jewish religious practice. A yeshiva student, in particular, is supposed to take himself away from doing something which, he believes, protects every Jew in every place, and instead place himself into a situation where he is told that all of that is valueless, and his rules, primitive.

In the newest example, the outgoing Head of the IDF Personnel Directorate, Avi Zamir, asserted that requiring female soldiers and officers to dress modestly around their observant comrades was harmful to their dignity. He said that to require women not to sing in their presence was a “pathetic demand.”

What happens if a soldier leaves a room in which a woman is singing, when commanded by his superiors to be in that room? It’s not at all the same as shopping at Walmart, where it’s a matter of personal preference whether or not to tolerate whatever they happen to play in the background. In the IDF, if you don’t overlook assaults on Jewish law, a soldier can be thrown in jail.

Handwriting Analysis: Science or Snow Job?

As a boy growing up in the 1960s, I became intrigued with handwriting analysis. It’s an intriguing notion, an almost obvious one: our character traits are subtly expressed in our handwriting. Every person is unique, after all, and so is every person’s handwriting. Our brains are the physical organs that mediate our “selves” and ultimately produce our writing. It seems reasonable that our handwriting unconsciously reveals things about our personal characteristics. The revelations will be subtle, to be sure, but with enough research, studies, and testing, it should be possible, the reasoning goes, to establish rules to allow for the accurate analysis of personality from handwriting.

And, indeed, the claim that such rules are available and can be practically applied, at least by experienced initiates, is the fundamental principle underlying the discipline of graphology, or handwriting analysis.

I read whatever material on the topic I could find. In the end, though, I concluded that if graphology were in fact a science, it was too inexact and fuzzy to be of any use. And so I lost interest and moved on to model rocketry.

But graphology, to understate things, went on quite well without me. Today, there are scores of books on the topic; companies specialize in analyzing handwriting; individual graphologists offer their services for a fee; people use graphological analyses of their strengths and weaknesses to make life decisions; and employers routinely evaluate applicants at least partly on graphologists’ judgments of handwriting. (The use of graphological profiles as an employment tool is particularly popular, for reasons not clear, in Western Europe and Israel.)

Continue reading → Handwriting Analysis: Science or Snow Job?

Science, Blinded

“Just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else” was the eminent twentieth century psychologist H.J. Eysenck’s judgment of scientists. “And their unusually high intelligence,” he added, “only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”

A recent example of scientific unreason stands out, both for the renown of the scientist involved and the irony of where his bias led him.

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was one of the most celebrated, influential and widely-read scientists of his time. In his 1981 book “The Mismeasure of Man,” about the measurement of intelligence, he presented the work of 19th-century physical anthropologist Samuel George Morton as Exhibit A for how racial preconceptions can prejudice scientific research.

Morton, seeking evidence that the Supreme Being had created human races separately, used mustard seeds (at first, then buckshot) to meticulously calibrate the volumes of hundreds of skulls of Caucasians, Asians, American Indians and Africans. He indeed found a pattern of size differentials in the brain cavities of the various groups. Reanalyzing the data anew, however, Gould concluded that the earlier scientist had misrepresented his findings, and accused Morton of believing that the groups with the smaller cranial cavities were intellectually … Read More >>