Ism Schism

Liberal-minded American Jews rightly regard Pamela Geller, who organized the Garland, Texas cartoon-of Islam’s-founder contest earlier this month, as an irresponsible provocateur. What’s odd is that many of those very same liberal-minded American Jews enthusiastically champion (and generously support) another irresponsible provocateur.

That would be the “Women of the Wall” – the attention-addicted feminist group bent on holding vocal women’s services at the Kosel Maaravi that offend the sensibilities of the traditional Orthodox women and men who most frequent the site and have regularly prayed there in traditional fashion for decades.

It might seem at first thought that Ms. Geller’s stunts are in a category of their own. After all, by snubbing her nose at the Muslim world, she courts violence of the sort that extremists within that world so readily and joyfully embrace. In fact, her Texas event attracted not only a small crowd but two angry and armed Islamists who sought to spill blood but who were, baruch Hashem, killed before they could wreak the havoc of their dreams.

But Ms. Geller isn’t misguided only because of the violent reactions she invites. She is misguided because, put simply and starkly, it’s wrong to provoke people. There … Read More >>


Yale Scientists’ Interesting Conclusion

Interesting news reported this morning about a team of Yale paleontologists who applied a set of algorithms to genetic and morphological data and concluded that the ancestor of living snakes had hind legs, complete with toes and ankles.

See here to read about a related observation.

Anybody Out There?

A mere week after NASA scientists announced their certainty of finding life on other planets within the next 20 years, a team of other scientists announced that, after searching 100,000 galaxies, they have found no signs of at least intelligent extraterrestrial life.

The researchers used information from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer orbiting observatory (WISE) to look for energy radiating away as heat. “The idea behind our research is that if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced… civilization, the energy produced… would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths,” explained Jason T. Wright, a Penn State University professor who initiated the survey. “These galaxies are billions of years old,” he continued, “which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations.”

This search is nothing new. Over the 1960s and 1970s, there was SETI, or the “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence”; META, the “Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay”; and META II. In 1972 and 1973, plaques depicting information about Earth were launched aboard the Pioneer and Voyager probes. In 1974, the “Arecibo message,” which carried coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space. And in the 1990s, the “Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay” … Read More >>

A World of Wastage

The recent rioting in my home town Baltimore brought two memories to mind. One was the 1968 riots, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I was fourteen, and while we lived several miles from where that violence transpired, it affected Jewish-owned stores in the inner-city, and it taught those of us who were born after the Second World War that malevolence and mayhem remained, unfortunately, alive and well.

Ostensibly, the recent rioting was a reaction to the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was nearly severed when in custody. Peaceful marches to protest that death were understandable, and in fact took place. (The death was eventually ruled a homicide by Baltimore State’s Attorney.) But then legions of young black men, many of them apparently high schoolers, began taunting and attacking police, setting fires and looting stores. Most telling were the delighted smiles on many looters’ faces, indelibly captured on film. If Mr. Gray was at all in the minds behind the faces, he had been grossly obscured by something else, an ugly anarchistic glee.

The rioters’ small minds weren’t likely capable of appreciating the irony of their actions. Not only the self-evident … Read More >>

Inform or Incite

Many who recognize the evil that permeates radical Islam likely felt a reflexive satisfaction at the recent ruling of U.S. District Judge John Koeltl that New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority cannot reject an anti-Islamist advertisement.

The ad, created by the “American Freedom Defense Initiative” (AFDI), presents a keffiyeh-wrapped head of a man, only his eyes showing, next to the words: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah,” a quote attributed to Hamas television. Below that is the legend: “That’s his Jihad. What’s yours?”

That final phrase is a pointed parody of a Muslim advocacy group’s ad campaign several years ago to try to detach the word “jihad” from its “holy war” connotation.

Telling quote, clever ad. And, according to Judge Koeltl, within AFDI’s rights to run.

The MTA had notified AFDI that it would not accept the ad (one of four that the group purchased space for on the sides of New York buses) because it could incite violence. A simpleminded Muslim, the MTA claimed, might misunderstand the ad’s true message and be inspired by its quote to kill Jews. Rejecting that argument, Judge Koeltl noted that the ad had had no such effect … Read More >>

Shooting From The Heart

Although blacks constitute approximately 13% of the American population, the FBI reported in 2013 that 38.5% of people arrested for violent crimes were African-Americans.

Statistics like that one, coupled with a largely unsavory urban black culture (not to mention what passes in some circles for black leadership), predisposes many of us to assume the worst about all blacks – or, at very least, to be sympathetic to law enforcement officers in their dealings with black suspects.

And, as a result, many white Americans tend to be wary of claims that black Americans are unfairly singled out by police for arrest, mistreated and even killed without justification.

So when, in 2013, George Zimmerman, a volunteer with a local “Neighborhood Watch” in Sanford, Florida, was acquitted by a jury of shooting to death Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth whom Mr. Zimmerman was following (against orders from a dispatcher to not do so) and with whom he got into an altercation, many of us felt that the volunteer’s claim that he killed the youth in self-defense was plausible, if not probable. The subsequent protests over the killing were regarded by many as an indefensible rush to judgment.

And last … Read More >>

RFRA Battles and Us

The controversy surrounding the passage by the Indiana legislature of a RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) should be a great concern to all Torah Jews. Agudath Israel of America played a major role in the passage of a federal RFRA statute in 1993. That legislation gained unanimous passage in the House and the support of 97 senators in the Senate, before being signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Since then 20 states have passed their own RFRA statutes, and another 11 have judicially extended similar protections under their state constitutions. Yet suddenly RFRA statutes are culturally anathema.

The federal RRFA statute came in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the so-called peyote case. Smith effectively reversed Sherbert v. Verner (1963) and its progeny. In the latter case, the Supreme Court ruled that South Carolina could not deny unemployment benefits to a woman whose religious beliefs prevented her from being “available to work” on Saturday. Justice Brennan, one of the Court’s leading liberal lights, enunciated a two-part test for state infringements on the exercise of religion: (1) the state would have to enunciate a “compelling state interest” for the infringement and (2) demonstrate … Read More >>

1984?

My rumination for the Forward on the contemporary state of religious rights — like that of citizens to disapprove of relationships — can be read here.

Muddy Study

Have you heard the story of the scientist whose area of research was insects’ hearing? He trained a flea to jump on command. In the interest of his research, he pulled off one of the flea’s legs and ordered it to jump. The insect complied, if a bit clumsily because of its handicap. The scientist recorded the data – the delay in the jump, the distance covered, etc., on a chart. After a second amputation, the flea’s response to the command was even less impressive, and the new results were duly entered on the chart. After a third leg was removed, the flea’s jump was greatly compromised, and the chart became host to the new data. Finally, after being deprived of all of its legs, all the flea could do when ordered to jump was buzz about hopelessly on the table.

Solemnly, the scientist consulted his chart, created a formula to reflect his findings, and recorded his conclusion: “Fleas hear with their legs.”

The myopic researcher was brought to mind by a recent article about the work of two French economists, Ruben Durante and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya. The piece, which appeared at MarketWatch, published by Dow Jones & Co., relates … Read More >>

And In Third Place…

And so the horse trading begins.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has gotten down to the nitty-gritty business of cobbling together a government coalition. Particularly attractive stallions, thankfully, will be the religious parties, the Prime Minister’s “natural partners,” as he calls them, although, apparently unnaturally, he jettisoned them the last time around. Their being in Bibi’s good graces (for now) is happy news.

What many may not see as happy news is the remarkable fact that, after Likud and the Zionist Union (Hamachaneh Hatzioni), the third largest winner of votes was… the “Joint List” (Hareshima Hameshutefet) – the new Arab party, comprised of four previous Arab parties.

No one is concerned that the Joint List’s 13 seats will make it an attractive partner to a Likud-dominated government – or, for that matter, any government. Nor would the Joint List itself consider being part of either. Its very essence is oppositional.

The genesis of the Joint List, though, holds some irony; and its success, perhaps, something positive.

The impetus for the joining together of the four Arab parties, representing utterly disparate, contradictory, ideologies – communism, feminism, Islamism, and Palestinian nationalism was legislation passed last year raising the electoral threshold from … Read More >>

What We Mean When We Talk About Fire Safety And Jewish Observance

An article I wrote about the blaming of the recent horrific fire in Brooklyn on Sabbath-observance appears in Haaretz here. You may need to register (free of charge) on the site to access it.

May we hear only happy news from all Jewish communities.

Persian Diversion

It was a tad early for “Purim Torah,” but on Taanis Esther, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zari responded to a question from an NBC correspondent by insisting that Iran cares deeply for and is entirely protective of its Jews.

Asked about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent assertion in his speech before the U.S. Congress that “Iran’s regime is not merely a Jewish problem, any more than the Nazis were a Jewish problem,” Mr. Zarif bristled and changed the topic to the Israeli leader’s citation in his speech to Megillas Esther.

“He even distorts his own scripture,” said the Iranian about the Israeli. “If – if you read the book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews.” We needn’t engage Mr. Zarif on the finer points of the Purim story, but the question in the end, of course, isn’t what Achashverosh was or did, but what Iran is and does (and wants to do).

(Mr. Zarif, incidentally, also proudly cited Koresh, as having granted the Jews of his time permission to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash – apparently oblivious to the irony of the fact that the aforementioned edifice was to be … Read More >>

Faithless Ferocity

Earlier this month, a newly-married couple and the wife’s sister, upstanding citizens and model university students, were murdered by a neighbor of the couple’s in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

A heinous crime, to be sure, and it reverberated particularly loudly across the country and around the world. Because the victims, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were Muslims with Middle-Eastern roots; and the alleged murderer, Craig Stephen Hicks, a middle-aged white man.

The suspected killer turned himself in to authorities and was duly indicted. And while authorities said that their preliminary investigation indicated that a dispute over a parking space in the apartment complex where the victims and the alleged killer lived was the proximate cause of the murders, a multitude of Muslim voices wasted no time seizing on the tragedy as an anti-Muslim hate crime.

Members of the victims’ family were the first to make the charge. One tweeted, “My cousin, his wife and sister in law were murdered for being muslim [sic]. Someone tell me racism/hate crimes don’t exist. #MuslimLivesMatter.”

Personal grief can cloud judgment, and it’s understandable that a relative of the murdered young people might assume religious prejudice motivated their … Read More >>

Sense and Centrifuges

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress is:

a) A bald political move to shore up support for his candidacy in imminent Israeli elections.

b) A misguided attempt to meddle in American partisan politics and embarrass President Obama

c) A straightforward effort to express sincere concerns about the Iranian danger, and the conviction that any negotiations with Iran are inherently misguided.

My guess? A bit of “all of the above.”

There’s no doubt that Mr. Netanyahu’s presenting himself as a prophet before the legislature of the superpower ally of Israel (if not as leader of the Jewish People itself, a mantel he’s been donning of late) will help him in his reelection bid. Or that he has often seized opportunities to express his dislike of Mr. Obama. (Yes, it’s mutual; kamayim hapanim lapanim… “As water reflects a face, so the heart of a man to a man.” – Mishlei, 27:19.)

But only a hardened cynic would assume that Mr. Netanyahu’s concern about Iran is a guise, that his disdain for negotiations isn’t sincere. It surely is.

But is it right?

For those who insist on seeing Mr. Obama as, at best, insufficiently concerned with Jews or Israel, … Read More >>

Metzitza Bipeh

C-C readers are probably aware of the fact that a tentative agreement was reached yesterday between NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and an association of mohelim and Orthodox representatives with regard to the practice of metzitza bipeh.

An article of mine that appeared in Haaretz yesterday on the ostensible tie between the rite and the cold sore virus (which can be dangerous to babies) can be read here.

Doubt Thyself

For years, national network news anchorman Brian Williams told various versions of a story about his experiences during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. His recent admission that he had gotten crucial facts wrong and his subsequent suspension don’t just comprise another case of the sudden fall of a mighty man (if one can define might as having earned widespread respect – and $10 million a year). The scandal may actually hold a niced-sized nugget of instructional hashkafah-gold.

It’s certainly possible, of course, that the broadcaster had been intentionally lying when he claimed to have been on a helicopter that came under fire (a rather foolish choice, since those present with him at the time could, as several eventually did, contradict his account). But it is also conceivable that Mr. Williams may have unconsciously conflated something he knew had happened to someone else with what actually happened to him, or confused a vivid fantasy with reality.

As Hillary Clinton may have when, in 2008, she claimed to have landed in Bosnia in 1996 amid sniper fire. She recanted her assertion when a video of the moment showed otherwise.

Many of us, understandably, might more readily attribute a … Read More >>

Thanks (I Think), NYT

I can’t say with any certitude that my repeatedly bugging of the New York Times’ public editor (who sent the criticism to a different department — which never responded to me) had anything to do with it. Or that my opinion piece last year (at http://hamodia.com/2014/08/06/ugly-times/ ) did.

But I’m happy to report that the “Times Journeys” offering of a tour to Israel with the theme “The Israeli-Palestinian Conundrum” seems to no longer feature Hanan Ashwari (who David Harris once said “is to truth what smoking is to health”) as one of its resident experts for the tourists. (The come-on is at http://www.nytimes.com/times-journeys/travel/israeli-palestinian-dialogue/ .)

But it never hurts to be a squeaky wheel (and to encourage others to squeak along); sometimes one may get the grease. One thing is certain: every proper hishtadlus is worth the time and trouble.

And thanks, New York Times, if you did, for taking the criticism seriously.

Womens Lib Haredi-Style

An article of mine on an often-ignored aspect of the high poverty/low employment rates of haredim in Israel was published by the Forward this week. The paper chose its own title for the piece, a somewhat misleading one, but, well, so it goes. You can read it here.

Zoned Out

Challenging “pre-owned” and “correctional institution” for first place in the delicate euphemism rankings is “sensitive urban zones.”

That phrase, having barged into the news cycle in recent weeks, is the translation of “Zones Urbaines Sensibles,” a designation long used in France to describe neighborhoods characterized by high unemployment, high rates of public housing and low educational attainment, many if not most of the areas populated for the most part by Muslim immigrants.

It was the characterization of such areas in Western Europe as “no-go zones,” first by Fox News and then by Louisiana governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal, that propelled “sensitive urban zones” into the news.

After terrorism analyst Steve Emerson contended on Fox News that “There are actual cities [in Britain] like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in,” British Prime Minister David Cameron waxed apoplectic, and the network apologized repeatedly. Similar claims about “no-go” neighborhoods in France prodded Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo to announce that the City of Light would be suing Fox. “The image of Paris,” she huffed, “has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced.”

A day after those apologies, Mr. Jindal told CNN that “In … 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 >>

Bricks for Bombs

A driver, reportedly shouting an Islamic slogan, rammed a vehicle into pedestrians in the French city of Dijon last Sunday, injuring twelve people.

Understandably, the attack (and several subsequent ones in France) brought back memories of this past autumn’s spate of vehicular terrorist attacks in Israel. Although they seem to have abated in Israel (despite much Palestinian social media encouragement that they continue), the devil’s brew of blood-lust and creativity in some Arab and Muslim hearts continues to boil apace.

Spewed from the cauldron recently was one Yasmin Sha’aban, who, according to the Shin Bet, was planning to carry out a suicide attack in Israel. She intended to receive a permit (“for medical reasons”) to travel from Jenin, where she lived, into Israel proper. There, she hoped to disguise herself as an expectant Jewish woman, with explosives hidden under her clothes, and create as much carnage as she possibly could.

That plot, baruch Hashem, was interrupted by Israeli security forces; Ms. Sha’aban and several compatriots were taken into custody. It turned out that her friends had also planned to bomb a bus carrying soldiers and to kidnap a soldier.

The perennial question returns: How to discourage such … Read More >>

Punditry With Prudence

“According to you,” a reader wrote me privately about a recent column that appeared in this space, “we can’t make any conclusions, because of the unknowns.”

The column, titled “Unknown Unknowns,” pointed out how, particularly in political affairs (like the current American administration’s relationship with Israel) we don’t always have the whole picture. I noted as an example, how, at the very same time that many Jewish media were attacking President Obama for his ostensible hostility toward Israel, the president was determinedly working hand in glove with Israel in a secret cyber-project to undermine the Iranian nuclear program. As pundits huffed and puffed, Stuxnet was silently destroying centrifuges.

The reader was chagrined that I, as he read it, was counseling a moratorium on commentary about all political affairs. I wrote back to explain that no, I didn’t mean that at all. We can, and even should, express our concerns openly in the free country in which we’re privileged to live. But we must do so with reason and civility (maybe even fairness), not the sort of ranting that passes for dialectic on talk radio these days. I meant only (and perhaps should have written more clearly) that a degree … 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 >>

Unknown Unknowns

Should you ever find yourself in an ornate, high-ceilinged room with a military-uniformed classical string ensemble segueing from a flawless rendition of a Bach concerto to an equally impressive (if less inspiring) version of “I Have a Little Dreidel,” it can only mean one thing: you’re at a White House Chanukah party.

I know, because during the George W. Bush administration, on behalf of Agudath Israel, I attended several of the yearly gatherings, which brought together assorted Jewish personalities, politicians and organizational representatives. One of the times when my wife didn’t accompany me, a major supporter of Agudath Israel was my guest.

I discovered then (aside from the fact that nothing compares to home-made potato latkes) that Mr. Bush is a mentch.

As we stood in the long line for the ritual photo-op with the president and first lady, my guest asked me if I minded if he alone stood next to the first couple for the photo. Having already garnered the souvenir before (along with a presidential seal paper hand-towel from the White House restroom, now hanging on our own bathroom wall), I didn’t. And so, when it was our turn, I stepped back to allow my guest … Read More >>

Strong and Subtle Slanders

The New York Jewish Week was understandably unhappy at the comparison that a respected Modern Orthodox rabbi seemed to make between the paper and the rabid Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer, which, from1923 until 1945, incited Germans with lurid fictions about Jews.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, NJ, recently stepped down from the Beit Din of Bergen County he led for seven years, mainly, he wrote, because of “the negativity associated today with conversion, and the cynicism and distrust fostered by so many…towards the rabbinate.”

Rabbi Pruzansky, a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, was also critical of a decision made by that latter organization to appoint a new conversion committee that will include several non-rabbinical members in addition to five rabbis. He expressed concern that the new committee may “water down the standards” for conversion and potentially lead to a return to “the old days of quickie conversions with little commitment.”

When the Jewish Week contacted him to elaborate, he declined to speak to its reporter, asserting that the paper is “one of the leading publications in the world of Orthodox-bashing and … Read More >>