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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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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 >>

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Only One Path to One Jewish People

In Haaretz, Reform Rabbi Eric H, Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, conceded the main point of a recent piece I wrote for that paper – that there cannot be an American-style church-state divide in Israel. He takes issue, though, with my claim, which he labels “outrageous,” that the haredi community seeks only to preserve the religious status quo ante established at the founding of the Jewish state. Much has changed, he argues, demographically since then.

I did not, however, assert that demographics haven’t changed, a self-evident falsehood. The status quo ante I cited is the legal/social agreement reached between David Ben-Gurion and the haredi community (Agudath Israel at its head) shortly before the state’s birth (along with other norms put in place shortly thereafter).

Yes, as Rabbi Yoffie points out, Ben-Gurion probably couldn’t know that the haredi community would grow to the point where it represents a sizable portion of the Israeli populace; and Israel’s first Prime Minister indeed likely hoped for a Hertzlian “Jewish culture rooted in atheism, socialism, and Biblical teachings.” And yes, that didn’t happen. (Whether Ben-Gurion’s spirit presently is perturbed or pleased by the current state of affairs is unknown.) But … Read More >>

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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 >>

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Message From the Har Nof Widows

[loose translation:] We turn to acheinu Bnei Yisrael wherever they may be. Let us all come together to increase the rachamei Shomayim shown to us! Let us all accept upon ourselves that we will increase love and brotherhood – between each person and his fellow, between community and community, between major group and major group.

Our request is that every individual should see to it to accept upon himself on Erev Shabbos Parshas Toldos, to sanctify this coming Shabbos as a day of ahavas chinam. It should be a day that we refrain from all kinds of divisive conversation, lashon hora, and rechilus.

This will be a great uplift to the souls of the heads of our families who were slaughtered for the holiness of His Holy Name.

May Hashem look from above, see our affliction, wipe away our tears, and say, “Enough!” to our sorrow. May we merit to see the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, speedily in our days – Amen, Amen.

Signed with a broken and crushed heart: Chayah Levine and family Breina Goldberg and family Yaakovah Kupinsky and family Bashi Twersky and family

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In Brief:

We’re Not Kidnappers

-- 9:17 am

A piece I wrote for a Forward blog, in reaction to a mother’s lament over her newly-Orthodox daughter’s described rejection of her parents can be read here.

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Growing Older, in Verse

-- 3:31 am

By Yossi Huttler

[Editor’s Note: By now, Rabbi Yossi Huttler has become the resident poet of Cross-Currents. Readers under 40 may not know what a poem is; those over 40 may find that it resonates.]

Graying

It only seems
silent and painless
how it happened
one overnight
like it did
to Rabbi Elazar ben Azaraya
but many hurts
unseen or unheard
have shaded me
silvery and gray hues
lunar scars
just how dark
depending on the night
and its mishmarot

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1 Comment

Exodus Exegesis

-- 9:28 pm

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

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On Never Having to Mention Islam

-- 9:43 am

The Obama administration responded characteristically to the savage terrorist attack by gunmen shouting “Al-lahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet” on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Press secretary Josh Earnest made the rounds of TV talk shows to repeat that “Islam is a religion of peace,” and to warn that the attack was still under investigation, and therefore it is “not clear who was responsible and what their motivations were.” If he really didn’t know their motivations, he was surely the last person on the planet in that position.

Secretary of State Kerry spoke of “extremists,” without mentioning what they represented the extreme version of, and insisted that the West does not face a war of civilizations – not with Islam or even a version of Islam.

No matter how many times the authors of savage deeds of barbarism proclaim that they are acting in the name of Al-lah, the “prophet,” or the “holy Koran;” no matter how many imams praise their actions and rejoice in their upholding the honor of Islam; no matter how many times they announce that their goal is imposition of sharia, Muslim religious law, on the entire world; no matter how many foundational Islamic texts calling for war on the infidel they cite – they can still count on Western apologists to deny their actions have anything to do with Islam. Why? Because everyone knows that “Islam is a religion of peace. Never mind that the three letter root for peace in Arabic is better translated as submission.

These flights of fancy have consequences: They endanger citizens of the West. Political correctness led the Obama administration to excise every reference to Islam from government anti-terrorist manuals, in contravention of Sun Tzu’s admonition in The Art of War: “Know your enemy.” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned against police surveillance of mosques, which are often terrorist recruitment and planning centers. That same slothful thinking leads to slack enforcement of airplane watch lists. Witness the “underwear bomber,” whose own father had informed authorities of his brainwashing by radical Islamists.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, new year’s day speech, thus came as a welcome refutation of so much nonsense about the lack of connection between Islam and terrorism. Speaking in the Al-Azhar University, a center of Islamic learning, al-Sisi lamented that “the corpus of [Islamic] texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years [are] antagonizing the entire world.” He asked whether it makes sense that “1.6 billion people [the world’s Islamic population] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants . . . so that they may live.”

Only a religious revolution, said al-Sisi, could keep Muslims from being seen as “a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.”

At least one Muslim it would appear has eyes to see that the source of the problem lies in Islam itself.

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5 Comments

Another Nail in the Coffin

-- 11:05 am

The Conservative Movement has been hemorrhaging for a quarter century. In the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the movement constituted 37.8% of American Jewry. That percentage was less than half in the 2013 Pew Study – 18%. The only growing segment of the non-Orthodox world are those who describe themselves as unaffiliated or having no religion.

The Conservative Movement always proclaimed itself a halachic movement. But that pretense has long since proven unsustainable. Marshall Sklare’s definitive study of the movement’s apparent flourishing in the ’50s and ’60s, already hinted at the seeds of its own destruction. Rabbis, wrote Sklare, enter into an unwritten compact with their congregations to never discuss halacha. And to the extent that halacha is discussed, it is in terms of polling the unlearned laity for their opinions.

In a December, 2005 address to 700 Conservative clergy and educators, the movement’s leading theologian, Neil Gilman, said that it was dishonest for Conservative movement to continue to describe itself as halachic. At most, halacha is to be consulted in light of “changing social and cultural norms.”

Last week, the movement took another step towards oblivion when United Synagogue Youth, its teenage division, voted to drop its previous ban on USY officers dating non-Jews. Now those officers are required only “to strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices,” while recognizing the importance of intra-dating for Jewish continuity. (Of course, the very concept of high-school “dating” is foreign to Mishpacha readers.)

The new language was designed, according to senior Conservative leaders, to offer a more welcoming face to USYers who come from intermarried homes and to recognize the reality of intermarriage.

Jack Wertheimer, former provost of the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, has documented what that welcoming attitude to intermarried couples entails: a member of a synagogue ritual committee appearing on Ash Wednesday (a Catholic holiday) with ash on her forehead; a cogregant challenging a rabbi for not having given equal time to x-mas in his Chanukah sermon.

In it’s efforts to be up-to-date and adapt to changing social mores and realities – and thereby avoiding the alleged “fossilization” of the Orthodox – the only thing the movement has done is to join Reform in convincing its young that Judaism is trivial: It has no fixed standards; it demands no sacrifice. And every former red-line proves as flexible as President Obama’s threat to Syrian dictator Assad not to cross his red-line by employing chemical weapons.

A Judaism that accepts you what no matter what you do; one where there is no beyond the pale, only succeeds in conveys the message that Judaism is worthless. No wonder the 2013 PEW study found that young Jews are more likely to view a particular sense of humor and taste for certain ethnic foods – both qualities widely shared with non-Jews – as more central to their Jewish identity than any particularistic religious beliefs or practices.

Not without logic, do young Jews conclude: If Judaism validates my every opinion, and legitimizes my every action, why do I need Judaism? The more trivial Judaism becomes the less sense does it make to take one’s Judaism into consideration in dating and marriage compared to focusing on shared politics, attraction, even a taste for French films.

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19 Comments

Here We Go Again… (Yes, Yibaneh Ha-Mikdash)

-- 9:05 pm

It felt so good to write about different, constructive topics for a while: Chanukah, hashkafah, and a planned article on the Torah’s view of police conduct. It was refreshing. This, plus some new divrei Torah and several halachic articles in other venues, provided a welcome break from previous discussion about concerns within Orthodoxy.

It was thus with shock and regret that I read Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz’ new article, Please, God, Help me to understand why we must pray for a third Temple! It is not that I was so shocked by the article’s content, as Rabbi Yanklowitz has already published plenty of material that does not square with Orthodox thought and practice. The shock, rather, was due to the fact that someone who identifies as an Orthodox rabbi and who has exposed himself to harsh criticism for his previous controversial writings would again, without inhibition, publicly pen something so at odds with Torah theology.

The centrality in Judaism of the Beis Ha-Mikdash, perpetuating the role of the Mishkan as the locus of perceptible and palpably-sensed Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah (Manifestation of the Divine Presence), cannot be overstated. The notion of Hashem residing in our midst, as it were, and our ability to come close to Him in entreaty and sacrifice, are among the most fundamental elements of our theology. Sacrifice on Har Ha-Moriyah (Mount Moriah), where the Beis Ha-Mikdash is stationed, goes back to Adam Ha-Rishon (Adam, the first human), and communing with our Creator at that site, and offering of ourselves to Him as symbolically reflected through korbonos (sacrifices), is at the core of our tradition of Avodas Hashem (Divine Service). To reject these concepts is to reject the most intrinsic components of Judaism and the Jewish approach to communing with God.

Here is my response to Rabbi Yanklowitz’ new article. Let’s hope that there will eventually no longer be cause for more such responses.

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Letter in NYT Book Review

-- 6:38 pm

A slightly edited version of the letter below appears in the current New York Times Book Review:

Editor:

In reviewing “Living the Secular Life,” Susan Jacoby misunderstands the argument of those who maintain that the idea that there can be “good without God” is absurd.

The question isn’t whether an atheist can live an ethical life; of course she can. And believers can do profoundly unethical things. But an atheist has no reason to choose an ethical life. “Good deed” or “bad deed” can have no more true meaning for him than good weather and bad weather; right and wrong, no more import than right and left. If we are mere evolved apes, even if evolution has bequeathed us a gut feeling that an ethical life is preferred, we have no more compelling reason to embrace that evolutionary artifact than we are to capitulate to others, like overeating in times of plenty. If dieting isn’t immoral, neither is ignoring the small voice telling us that whacking our neighbor on the head and stealing his dog is wrong.

Only a psychopath, Ms. Jacoby contends, could disagree with the Golden Rule. The evidence presented by the large number of people convicted each year of thievery, assault, murder and rape (not to mention the even larger number of litigants in most civil lawsuits) would seem to argue otherwise. No, being willing to do unto others what one would not want done to himself isn’t a sign of psychopathy. It is a part of human nature. And only the conviction that there is an Ultimate Arbiter of right and wrong, and that we are created in the image of that God, can give us pause when we consider expressing the darker facets of our natures.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
New York, NY

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פרסומי ניסא – Publicizing the Miracle(s)

-- 9:40 pm

KAJ Chanuka

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 rededication of Avodas Hashem. The modern-day embodiment of the Chashmona’im and the story of Chanukah. Boundless thanks to Hashem that this congregation was uniquely spared from the Churban of European Jewry.

Preservation of minhagim. Every move and every note is performed precisely as was done in Frankfurt, where the congregation originated. In חזרת הש”ץ (Repetition of the Amidah), the chazzan carefully ascends an octave, slows down and raises his voice as he recites the words שובר איבים ומכניע זדים, as well as על הצדיקים and הטוב שמך ולך נאה להודות (references to the Chanukah victory, the Chashmona’im, and the requirement to offer special thanksgiving to Hashem for the deliverance and miracles of Chanukah). Likewise, the final phrases of על הנסים (“For the miracles”) are chanted with a special, celebratory musical motif. Commenting on the Torah’s presentation of the mitzvah of the Menorah, Chazal laud Aharon for not deviating one iota from that which he was commanded: ויעש כן אהרן – להגיד שבחו של אהרן שלא שינה (“And Aharon performed it accordingly [kindling the Menorah]” – Vayikra 8:3 – The Torah praises Aharon, for he did not veer from the command; he adhered to the mitzvah precisely.) The chazzan at KAJ, as he kindles the menorah with yiras shamayim, precision and care, manifests this same visage of Aharon. (Adherence to the exact Mesorah of the congregation was emphasized by Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, who explained that the traditional musical nusach (rendition) provides the proper interpretation for the words of tefillah. Concerning the Yomim Nora’im, Rav Soloveitchik stated: “The Mesorah of the Nefesh, of experiencing God, is expressed in halachic terms by the Remo, who rules (אורח חיים תריט:א) that one may not alter the liturgy and tunes used by one’s congregation on the High Holidays. The liturgy and tunes employed by each community affect one’s emotional response to the High Holidays and constitute the Mesorah of the Nefesh.“)

Personal inspiration. Although the Gordimer family hails from Telshe and Minsk, and my family’s minhagim are those of northeast Europe (Lita), one of my maternal great-grandfathers came from Germany, from a small town near Brandenburg. He, along with his parents and brothers, moved to Galicia (southeastern Poland-western Ukraine), where he married into a local family with deep Chassidic roots. Nonetheless, in the face of the Haskalah movement making its way east, this “Yekkishe” great-grandfather of mine remained the most religiously-committed of the clan. My great-grandfather brought his family to America in 1920, and as they did not have a menorah with them as they left Europe, my great-grandfather, insistent to light Chanukah candles, carved potato skins into makeshift candleholders and lit for the family en route. Although I never met this great-grandfather, his commitment serves as a personal inspiration. He is my family’s personal connection to the beautiful German-Jewish Chanukah observances that we are privileged to attend this and every year.

May the traditions of Chanukah continue to enlighten and inspire us all and compel us to commit further to our Mesorah.

א פרייליכען חנוכה/Happy Chanukah/חנוכה שמח

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Change in Order to Preserve

-- 11:04 am

“Shev v’al ta’aseh adif — [In a case of doubt] remaining stationary is preferable,” is a familiar Talmudic principle. But we learn in this week’s parashah Vayeishev that there are times in life where the inertia principle does not apply.

After all the travails of Lavan and Esav and Dina, Yaakov Avinu sought nothing more than a little peace and quiet, But, as Rashi, explains peace and quiet are not the natural state of a tzaddik in this world. And so Hashem immediately brought Yaakov’s most difficult test – the disappearance of his beloved son Yosef for 22 years.

For the tzaddik, the natural state is one of continual striving. There is no possibility of remaining stationary. If one is not ascending on the spiritual ladder, one is descending – just like the angels in Yaakov’s dream. In the tzaddik’s world – the world of ruchnios – there is no standing still.

At the communal level too, it is often impossible to remain standing or to continue to operate according to old battle plans. Often times, just to preserve what has been gained, it is necessary to change the course of action that made possible those gains in the first place.

Not long ago, the Belzer Rebbe observed the remarkable growth of Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael over the last six decades and commented, “It will take no less siyata d’Shmaya to preserve what was built than it took for the building itself.” I understood him to mean, inter alia, that building and preservation are separate stages, and the hanhaga of building may not be the hanhaga of preservation. After all, in the process of building a great deal changed from when the process began.

Today, the Bais Yaakov system is so embedded at the heart of the Torah community that it is hard for the current generation to begin to appreciate the revolutionary nature of Sarah Schenirer’s movement..Yet Rabbi Chaskel Sarna, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron Yeshiva, once said to an audience of gedolei Torah and roshei yeshiva that the person who had done more for Am Yisrael than anyone else is the preceding hundred years was none of their ancestors, and had never even learned a single blatt Gemara. Everyone present laughed until he revealed the name of the person about whom he was speaking: Sarah Schenirer. At which point, all agreed.

True, she convinced the Chofetz Chaim and the Imrei Emes of Gerrer to join her revolution, but she was the one who saw the need that had escaped others: For the young women of her native Cracow, Yiddishkeit had become an empty shell that they were eager to abandon. Had matters been left to head in the same direction there would soon have been no Jewish women left eager, or even willing, to marry a Torah scholar.

A radical change in women’s learning was needed to preserve Torah itself.

And similarly when the Chazon Ish declared that Hebrew would henceforth be the language of instruction in Chinuch Atzmai. He knew very well that blood had been spilt in Jerusalem over the issue of Yiddish vs. Hebrew as the language of instruction in the chadorim.

Yet he also decided that those holding up the banner of Yiddish instruction were like the generals who are always said to be preparing for the last war. “Yiddish is not the battle front today,” the Chazon Ish said to those who came to question his decision. The battle of the hour, in his eyes, was the preservation of the ancient religious culture of Jews from Arab lands. Had Chinuch Atzmai remained Yiddish-speaking it could not have absorbed that population and they too would have been largely lost.

In business today, we see countless examples of the impossibility of just “playing it safe” and trying to protect one’s market share. Witness what happened to companies that once dominated their respective markets right up until the time those markets simply ceased to exist – Olivetti (typewriters); Eastman Kodak and Polaroid (film).

Just carrying on with what we have been doing until now is often not the best way to protect once past achievements. Standing pat is never a response with respect to preserving one’s level of ruchnios and often not in hanhagas of the Klal either.

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A Bit of Clarity on State Conversions

-- 1:55 pm

When R Avrohom Sherman issued a long psak in 2008 questioning the procedures of Israel’s “special beis din” for conversion, he set off a heated debate that has not gone away. Can a beis din undo a conversion years after it supposedly went into effect? If it could, would converts ever have closure, or would they live in fear that some new court would one day decide that they weren’t really Jewish? You can draw a straight line between the arguments of those days and recent attempts by Americans associated with Orthodox far-left/neo-Conservative groups to undo the Rabbanut’s control of giyur, even in the pages of the New York Times.

One victim of pitched debate is the truth. Just how good or how bad were the procedures of the special court? Eventually, some of the truth emerges. We now have a pithy, simple summary of the seriousness of the candidates of that court by someone who is no believer in halachic process, from a recent article in the Jerusalem Post:

Hiddush director and Reform rabbi Uri Regev said it would require “extreme detachment from reality not to know that the majority of converts from the immigrant community from the former Soviet Union do this [conversion] without true intent to accept Torah and commandments upon themselves and are forced to promise false promises that they will observe the religious commandments.”

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A Chanukah Message From the LAPD

-- 2:23 am

Letters from the LAPD that come personally addressed, rather than to “Occupant” will rarely precipitate shows of glee in the recipient. But every rule has its exception. The envelope I received just before Chanukah is too good not to share. We will excuse the spelling errors, and cherish the thought that went into this card. Yet another demonstration of what a bracha this country is to those of us still stuck in galus. (Michael Downing is just behind the Chief of Police in the LAPD hierarchy.)

Downing-Chanukah1

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Sometimes, We Get It Right

-- 11:08 pm

Kudos to the residents of Itamar. One of the most beautiful gestures I can remember in recent memory. Residents of Har Nof last week found this note and the accompanying gift of a chocolate bar left for them.

[Hat tip (figuratively speaking) to Dovi Adlerstein, Dallas]

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