“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


Malignancies

There’s nothing remotely funny, of course, about rabid Islamists beheading innocent Westerners they have kidnapped (or their fellow Muslims, for that matter).

Yet, there is something bizarrely droll about the characterization of such slaughter, and in particular its filming and the dissemination of the resultant videos, as a “recruitment tool.” According to experts like Peter Neumann, who directs a center for the study of political violence in London, that is the videos’ goal, based on past successes in attracting new recruits.

What I found almost humorous was the unthinkability (to put it mildly) of any group of normal human beings seeking adherents by murdering people on camera. Can you imagine the Mormon Church cutting off the heads of gentiles (its name for non-Mormons) in order to attract worshippers? The Republican party, to entice independents? The Rotary Club, to garner new members? The local Jewish Federation, to lure donors? You get the droll.

And then the all-too-serious question presents itself: What does it say about a cause that it attracts people by means of the gleeful shedding of innocent blood? And a corollary: What does it say about the people so attracted?

It is fashionable to seek to “understand” forces … Read More >>

Letter in NYT

To the Editor:

Dr. Barron H. Lerner concedes that it was proper for medicine to abandon the medical paternalism that had doctors make “life-and-death decisions for patients by themselves,” but he asserts that doctors should be “bolder and more courageous,” seeing “their duty not simply as providing options” but as ensuring “the most appropriate care,” even if that means “saying no to specific demands.”

To be sure, patients and their families need to be well informed about treatments and prognoses. But it is not a doctor’s role to make ultimate decisions for his patients.

Dr. Lerner doesn’t like interventions that have “little or no chance of succeeding.” No one, though, has yet succeeded in surviving life indefinitely. And decisions about when, if ever, to give up on it are the province of patients and their religious advisers, not graduates of medical schools.

(Rabbi) AVI SHAFRAN Director of Public Affairs Agudath Israel of America New York, Sept. 19, 2014

Other letters on the topic can be read here.

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 >>

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 … 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.”

“It”?

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 >>

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 >>

Kidneys, Cash and Caring

Over recent years, “Israelis have played a disproportionate role” in organ trafficking, The New York Times reported recently in a lengthy front-page story. Some Israeli entrepreneurs “have pocketed enormous sums for arranging overseas transplants for patients who are paired with foreign donors,” according to court filings and government documents.

The organs in question are kidneys. Most of us are born with two, although only one is necessary for living a normal life. Numerous people in renal failure have received kidneys donated by friends or relatives – even altruistic strangers.

But the supply of transplantable organs is estimated by the World Health Organization to meet no more than a tenth of the need. And so a market for kidneys has emerged, and thousands of patients receive illicit transplants each year, often facilitated by brokers, like the accused Israelis, who match potential donors wishing to sell one of their kidneys to someone who desperately needs one. The brokers maintain that they operate legally and are simply engaged in facilitating legitimate business transactions.

The unaddressed but poignant question here, though, is why the sale of kidneys is so widely perceived as immoral. Opponents of such sales say that since poor people, … Read More >>

The End is Near

The recent upsurge in anti-Semitism across Western Europe and around the globe, complete with swastikas and “Death to the Jews” chants, is depressing and alarming. It should also, however, be inspiring.

For, once again, we have witnessed how outrage ostensibly over the actions of a sovereign nation, Israel, so quickly and effortlessly festered into full-blown Jew-hatred – not Israel-hatred, not even Israeli-hatred, but Jew-hatred. That curious phenomenon might be discomfiting, but should also make us think.

Can anyone imagine the all-too-real repressive policies of China being laid at the feet of Europeans of Chinese ethnicity, with protesters wildly advocating their extermination?

Can we picture anger over the actual crimes committed by Iran’s leaders being taken out on Iranians living in Europe or the United States, with attacks on their homes and institutions?

Yes, to be sure, there are mindless individuals who, seeing terrorism being committed in the name of Islam, target innocent Muslims as complicit in the inhumanities perpetrated in their religion’s name. But such misguided avengers are generally lone wolves; and, in the end, it is a belief system, not a government, that they wish to attack. They think that being a Muslim automatically makes one a … Read More >>

The Punker’s Lesson

A Tisha B’Av-themed piece appearing in the Forward can be read here.

Pain and Gain

Living lives of comfort and ease, it’s difficult for many of us to fulfill the direction of the first siman in the Shulchan Aruch to “be pained and distressed over the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh.” Do we experience agony at the fact that the holiest spot in the universe lies in picturesque ruin, trampled daily by the feet of deluded masses? Do we feel sick over the reality that, no matter how nice the weather and the house and the bungalow and the cars, we are in golus?

It’s easier these days, unfortunately. We’re reminded.

It will be less of a challenge, too, to access the sadness of Eicha and our kinos this Tisha B’Av, when (unless we’re wonderfully surprised first by Moshiach’s arrival) we will focus entirely on the churban Beis Hamikdosh and its appalling offspring, the subsequent tragedies of Jewish history.

Because, no matter how one chooses to regard past weeks’ events in Eretz Yisrael, and no matter what may have been accomplished or might yet be, the situation is in fact dire and seemingly hopeless.

Some may take heart in the elimination of terrorists who, in their happiest dreams, and all too often in … Read More >>

A New Look at Tehillim 140

Contributed by Doron Beckerman

Psalm 140 May Have Never Been More Apt

למנצח מזמור לדוד: (1) To the conductor. A song of David.

חלצני ה’ מאדם רע מאיש חמסים תנצרני: (2) Extricate me, O Hashem, from a wicked person. Protect me from a man of depravities.

אשר חשבו רעות בלב כל יום יגורו מלחמות: (3) Who scheme evil in their heart; every day they have war within their dwelling places (Rashi).

שננו לשונם כמו נחש חמת עכשוב תחת שפתימו סלה: (4) They sharpen their tongue as a snake; venom of vipers is constantly under their lips (as they foam at the mouth spewing their rhetoric; Radak).

שמרני ה’ מידי רשע מאיש חמסים תנצרני אשר חשבו לדחות פעמי: (5) Keep me, Hashem, from the hand of an evildoer, protect me from a man of depravity; those who scheme to make my steps falter (and fall into their traps; Malbim).

טמנו גאים פח לי וחבלים פרשו רשת ליד מעגל מקשים שתו לי סלה: (6) The haughty have set snares before me, and cords. They have spread out nets on the pathways on which I tread. They have incessantly placed stumbling blocks before me (even after multiple failures, … Read More >>

COJs, not OTDs, may be our bigger problem

An article I wrote about “Cultural Orthodox Jews” in the Forward can be read here.

When Waging War is Pursuing Peace

As Pinchas taught us, sometimes an act of violence promotes peace.

At the end of last week’s Torah reading, we are told that one of the leaders of the Tribes of Israel engaged in an immoral act, deliberately violating the Commandments. He did it brazenly, “in your face,” challenging Moshe and all of the Children of Israel. Everyone was crying, but Pinchas knew what he had to do: pick up a spear. And how did G-d respond? Per this week’s reading, He bestowed upon Pinchas His Covenant of Peace.

We have no prophets today, but neither are any necessary to understand that there is no evil in killing barbarians bent upon killing you.

To those offended by my use of the term barbarians, I offer no apology. These are not civilized human beings with the same values as you and me. People who target women and children, hospitals and kindergartens, are barbarians. People who loudly proclaim that they “celebrate death,” are barbarians. People who bring their own children into buildings after a phone call from the IDF warning them that the building is about to be destroyed, are barbarians.

It is clear that Israel is making a … Read More >>

Hamas Terrorism in 140 Chars

Aiming missiles at my daughter is a symptom of nothing but the desire to murder Jews. #Israel #Hamas #Gaza

— Rabbi Yaakov Menken (@ymenken) July 8, 2014

If Only

To re-read Rachel Fraenkel’s words in a New York Times report that appeared mere hours before the discovery that her son Naftali and his two friends, Hashem yinkom damam, had been murdered is to experience anew the shattering moment that accompanied the first reports of the discovery.

Confiding to a reporter her belief that the kidnapping would “end in a positive way,” she took care to add: “Not that I don’t consider other things. I’m not in denial. If I have to fall apart, I’ll have time to do it later.”

The time, to the anguish and agony of us all, came.

I was on the phone with a colleague discussing an important legal development when I heard a mid-sentence gasp on the other end of the line, and thought I sensed tears. Although no official word had yet been released, my colleague had just received an alarming e-mail and informed me that some news sources were reporting a “development.” Suddenly the legal issue had not the slightest importance.

It was astounding how so many Jews so far removed from one another – geographically and otherwise – came together in hope and tefilla during the weeks the boys were … Read More >>

Agudath Israel statement on arrests in murder of Arab boy

Reports of arrests of members of the Jewish community in connection with the recent murder of an Arab youth, Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, should fill us all with revulsion.

The Jewish faith does not tolerate violence other than in self-defense and condemns murder as a grave crime. To take the life of an innocent human being is not only an indefensible, evil act but, here, brings our people down to the level of our most implacable and cruel enemies. It is a chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name.

The entire Jewish world was plunged into mourning at the news of the three innocent Jewish teens who were murdered several weeks ago by as-yet unapprehended parties. And mourning was, and is, the proper response of individuals to such crimes, not misguided attempts by vigilantes to exact “revenge,” which is the Creator’s to dispense.

May the families of both the murdered Jewish boys and the murdered Arab boy be comforted. And may governmental authorities successfully bring all the murderers to the justice that can be meted out in this world.

We beseech the Creator, the One who “makes peace in His heavens,” to send us the day soon when … Read More >>

“No Haredim Enlisting Anymore”

Yair Lapid can provide actions in support of unity, not just words, by working with the Haredi community instead of against it. … Read More >>

Please, Leave Me Be

by Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman

If you are seeking from me words of comfort and consolation you will not find them. If you are reading this in order for you gain some sort of insightful understanding of the tragic events then I advise you to stop reading. This missive will not be one of comfort and consolation. If you are looking at me as the rabbi who undoubtedly has the proper response and is able to theologically articulate and make sense out of the tragedy, then you will be utterly disappointed. I have no words of comfort. I offer no consolation. I have no insight and no comprehension. I am numbed and I am left wondering and wandering in my grief and my loneliness. I cannot see the ‘good’ in this and I cannot comprehend the ways of the creator and certainly not of some of His creations. I cannot and hope to never be able to understand how a human being can murder three innocent human beings with the justification that they are following the word of their (imaginary) ‘god’? I cannot fathom the level of cruelty and savagery a person must lower themselves to in order to … Read More >>

Driving Lesson

The article below appeared earlier this week in Haaretz (under a more incendiary title).

Back in the day, before contoured bucket seats became de rigueur in cars, the front seat of family vehicles – especially larger ones – was once a couch-like affair that could, and often did, comfortably seat three adults across. The scene: Mr. and Mrs. Weisskopf, citizens of a certain age, are driving somewhere. The missus is upset, and her husband asks what’s wrong.

“Do you remember,” she says, wistfully but with unmistakable resentment, “how we used to sit so near one another on our drives? Look at us! We’re at totally opposite ends of the seat!”

The man is puzzled, as well he might be. “But dear,” he replies, looking across at her, his hands firm on the steering wheel, “I’m driving!”

The chestnut comes to mind upon reading some of the reactions of Reform leaders to the election of Ruby Rivlin to Israel’s presidency.

“He may be open-minded on a variety of issues,” Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who now heads the “religious pluralism” organization Hiddush, pronounced about the president-elect, “but his mind was made up” about Judaism’s definition. He is “the same … Read More >>

Andrew Dice Clay on Josh Orlian

If there’s ever someone you wouldn’t expect to be praised on Cross-Currents, it would have to be Andrew Dice Clay. He was banned for life by MTV and from many radio and television programs for his use of foul language and “politically incorrect humor” — one of the cast members of Saturday Night Live refused to appear during the episode in which he made a guest appearance. In terms of “defining deviancy down” when it comes to language and references in the media, he exceeded even Howard Stern.

But he provides an interesting footnote to the appearance of Josh Orlian on America’s Got Talent, as previously discussed by both Rabbi Adlerstein and myself. In contrast to Howard Stern, who I have since been told has a non-Jewish mother, Andrew Clay Silverstein grew up in a Jewish family in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn.

On Shabbos I mentioned Josh Orlian’s AGT appearance, and my reaction to it, while speaking at a Kiddush. I was seated across from a corporate entertainer and comedy magician named Avi Frier, who is also the former publisher of the Florida Jewish News. Honestly, I didn’t know the “corporate” part or what … Read More >>

Defining Deviancy Down

With Dad’s advice and encouragement, and young man introduced himself as a stand-up comic — and then proceeded to deliver a series of truly filthy jokes… while wearing a kipah. How should we respond to this? … Read More >>

A Prediction Fulfilled — Sadly

Exactly one year ago, in a piece entitled “Yair Lapid Sets Back the Clock,” I predicted that Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party would reverse a decade-long trend toward greater chareidi integration in the broader Israeli society. The Marker recently confirmed the accuracy of that prediction with respect to the number of chareidim seeking higher education and enlisting in the IDF.

An unidentified official in the Council on Higher Education termed the registration for the start of the upcoming academic year among chareidim as a “catastrophe.” According to the best estimates of the head of the council, Professor Manuel Trachtenberg, there will be a 20 percent decline from the chareidi registration for the 2013-14 academic year. The decline has been particularly dramatic among male students

The decrease in the number of chareidim registering for academic programs comes at a time when government support — in the form of student loans and grants — for chareidim in academia has greatly expanded. Avraham Feldstein, the director of Kemach, which offers tuition stipends for chareidi students, notes “the absurdity that at the very time the government is investing significant funds to encourage chareidi higher education, it has created a public atmosphere … Read More >>

An Evil Report

My D’var Torah this week made a rare crossover into current events, in a way that I thought appropriate for Cross-Currents.

In this week’s reading we learn about the spies sent to look at the Land of Cana’an. As is clear from the consequences, their evil report, and the Children of Israel’s reaction, became their greatest sin in all their time in the Sinai desert — and it was initiated by “leaders of the Children of Israel” [Num. 13:3]. Even among the Generation of the Desert, those who heard the Voice of G-d at Mt. Sinai, those who set this in motion were on an exalted spiritual level. How could this have happened?

After they went through the land of Cana’an, these great men came home very discouraged. They knew that the Children of Israel had sinned previously, especially with the Golden Calf. They saw that the inhabitants were giants, and it would take open miracles for Israel to be victorious. So they concluded, erroneously, that Israel was no longer worthy of that level of protection — that G-d’s promise was not unconditional, that they would lose.

So what did they do when they returned? Did they go to … Read More >>

Why Kids’ Clothing Harms Women

Why? Well, I can’t claim it makes sense. My impression is that if you’re The Forward, everything oppresses (Orthodox) women.

As acknowledged by Footsteps, an organization helping people leave the “ultra-” Orthodox community, women are much less likely to leave Torah observance than men (in a TV interview, the head of Footsteps said only one-third of its clients are women). But as demonstrated by Deborah Feldman, Leah Vincent and Frimet Goldberger, they are much more likely to provide fictionalized depictions of their past lives and communities after they do.

Even so, this article is an amazing journey into the realm of illogic. Its basis is a single anonymous phone call to a store in Lakewood selling “trendy” clothing, berating them for advertising depicting a seven or eight-year-old boy dressed according to current fashion — which, in all honesty, outfits him as a Ringling Bros. employee. Be that as it may, the caller was outraged, not amused, and she threatens a boycott if the store won’t stop wasting their money trying to market clown costumes to the Orthodox Jews of Lakewood.

Which, to Frimet Goldberger, “continues a cycle in which women perpetuate their own victimhood.” I wish … Read More >>