A Response to Rabbi Slifkin

Last week, I penned an article articulating why there was a gathering in Manhattan of 50,000 Torah observant Jews who do not wish to see Yeshiva students forcibly drafted into the army.  The gathering was supported by leading Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbonim in America, and the leaders of Shas, Agudah, and Degel HaTorah  in Eretz Yisroel.  I made eight points:

  1. Soldiers who are protecting the nation against the enemies of the Jewish people are fulfilling a remarkable task and are playing a holy role.
  2. All of us, who are beneficiaries of their bravery and dedication, should express our sincere hakaras haTov and pray for their welfare and well-being.
  3. It is unfortunate that some do not express their hakaras hatov.
  4. Full-timeTorah study, like nuclear research, is very important.
  5. When there is a “super” milchemes Mitzvah all people have to go to war
  6. There is a debate whether there are two types of wars in halacha or 3 types of wars.
  7. Chareidim hold that there are 3 types and that right now the war situation in Israel is a standard milchemes mitzvah.  Bridegrooms go to war.  Torah scholars, according to the chareidi view, only go out to war in cases of “super” milchemes Mitzvah.
  8. Both sides should work toward better unity.

R. Slifkin chose to attack the article, but not directly on the eight points I made (although he addressed the last one).  Rather he chose to attack the Chareidi point of view, in what could be characterized as a diatribe.  It is easy to create a false straw man and knock it down. I will try to deal with each of Rabbi Slifkin’s responses point by point.
Continue reading → A Response to Rabbi Slifkin

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Living in Chutz LaAretz and the IDF – A Halachic Overview and Proposal

by Doron Beckerman

My analysis of this issue will be short and succinct, for a reason. If one considers Israel’s current situation to be active milchemes mitzvah, one who lives in chutz la’aretz and is physically able to serve in the IDF is more obligated to do so than those studying Torah in Eretz Yisrael. (Sources are available upon request.)

In that light, I propose the following law, called “The HaAcheichem Law,” which shall consist of two basic clauses:

a) All Jews entering Israel between the age of seventeen and thirty implicitly agree to submit to a draft for up to three years should the IDF determine this to be in their interests.

b) Exception: Those who come to study Torah. Of those, 20% will be free to study here undisturbed, but the other 80% must agree to the same conditions as other Jews. Additionally, all Yeshivos that fall below a 50% draft rate among their students from the Diaspora will no longer be eligible to any government funding.

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A Berdichiver Moment

By Dovid Landesman

One of the more famous stories about R.Levi Yitzchak zt”l recalls his visit to the local marketplace. There he came across a wagon driver wearing tallit and tefillin, busily digigng the wheel of his cart out of the mud in which it was mired. The gabbai who accompanied his master was aghast at the insensitivity of this simple Jew, hastily reciting his morning prayers in such an unsuitable fashion. But R. Levi Yitzchak saw something else. Looking up to heaven, the Rebbe raised his voice and declared: “Ribbono shel olam, what nachat you must have from your children. Even when they are working in the mud, they think only of you!”

I remembered the story as I watched the IDF video of the sailors who had interdicted the Panamanian ship carrying missiles bound for Gaza. In case you missed it, the clip shows the crew of one of the destroyers singing Shalom Aleichim and then listening to Kiddush. Obviously the film was taken on Shabbat and initially I was disturbed by the needless act of chilul Shabbat that it represented. But then I thought, “Wow! Here was the crew of an Israeli destroyer along with members … Read More >>

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Torah Study and the IDF – A Halachic Overview

Many people, from outside and even from inside the Chareidi community, have questioned the Torah sources regarding Bnei Torah continuing to study rather than serving in the army.  There is no question, of course, that the soldiers who are protecting the nation against the enemies of the Jewish people are fulfilling a remarkable task and are playing a holy role.  Certainly, all of us, who are beneficiaries of their bravery and dedication. should express our sincere hakaras haTov and pray for their welfare and well-being.  It is unfortunate that some do not.

The leading Sages of America, Degel HaTorah, Agudah in Eretz Yisroel and the sages of Shas – the Sefardic Torah organization – all signed onto the call to join in the mass gathering in the Wall Street area.  The purpose of the Asifa was to show solidarity with the Torah community in Israel.   The Torah community is facing an unprecedented law in the state of Israel’s history – a law to forcibly draft Yeshiva students into the armed forces, contravening an agreement that was made at the very birth of the country.

This response is an explanation and a historical overview about the confluence of army service and Torah study.   Not everyone, of course, will agree with the explanations and positions set forth here.  However, those that do not agree must realize that they do come from a very different socio-religious milieu than those in the Chareidi world who have been brought up with and raised with a deep appreciation of Torah being the only definition of true Jewish  life.

Serious-minded Chareidi Jews do not merely recite the words of the blessings of the Shma perfunctorily.  No.  When they recite the words, “Ki haim chayeinu – for they are our life – v’orech yameinu and the pathways of our days.” – they mean it, and they mean it as the sole pursuit in life. They view the notion of Zionism as a form of secular nationalism and not as the fulfillment of any religious ideal.

The situation may be somewhat analogous to the Manhattan Project during World War II.  The top secret project that was to develop the atom bomb required an enormous amount of manpower – manpower that would normally have gone toward the war effort.  The project was top secret and few understood what the Manhattan Project was all about, even the massive number of workers who were building centrifuges to build heavy water extraction plants.  And there were well over 100,000 such workers.  Many of these workers and scientists who labored in the project were constantly subjected to sneers and snide remarks from the average citizenry  – whose boys were across two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, fighting.

The parallel is obvious.  There was little appreciation for those who toiled at electro-magnetic isotope separation,  thermal diffusion, U-235 production and Plutonium production, instead of going to the army.  There is little appreciation as well for those who toil in Nashim, Nezikin, Kodshim and Moed, instead of fighting in the IDF.  Bring the subject up to someone who was not raised in the bedrock of Torah life and you will invariably get the response, “Oh come on!  They are so different!”

But there is no difference.

The Manhattan Project was crucial in saving hundreds of thousands of American lives.  And, according to Chazal, full time Torah study is crucial in saving the Jewish people.  Let’s take a quick tour through the halachic and historical record.

Continue reading → Torah Study and the IDF – A Halachic Overview

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Adar Blues and the Beit Shemesh Election

The last week or so has not been easy. I can’t recall another state of affairs that left a huge number of Orthodox Jews elated, while another group looked on in sheer dismay. I wondered, as did some of our commenters, whether something could be called a massive Kiddush Hashem when it so dramatically sharpened the pirud levavos between Torah observant Jews.

Had I been in Yerushalayim or New York, I would have attended. How could I not take part in a gathering of so many Torah Jews, united in their love for Torah? And tefillah is always appropriate. HKBH can sort out all of the different requests; mine would have been for a solution to the problem that allows for Torah to thrive, for people to extricate themselves from their poverty and dependence if they wish, for people not to drown financially as this is happening, and for healing the rifts between us.

I would have attended, but it would have been with a heavy heart – as if by kefias sheid. I would have shared some of the fears and pain of the crowd, but utterly rejected some of the slogans and rhetoric. It pains me to … Read More >>

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Megillas Lester

Haman

“It’s the best Jewish movie I’ve ever seen, and it has no competition” — such was my daughter’s trenchant review of the awesome Megillas Lester. While that isn’t strictly true, of course (there have been children’s movies like “Agent Emes” around for a while, and I’m sure she has seen them), the claims that this movie is “raising the bar” on quality frum entertainment are, for once, no exaggeration at all.

I’m sure this was a major gamble. As much as Emes Productions (who provided financial backing) may claim to specialize in “low budget” films, the acting, animation and production costs were probably far above anything done for our community thus far. I hope it pays off financially, because the result is a very high quality product — keyn yirbu, our community will undoubtedly demand more on this level.

Chananya (CJ) Kramer of Kol Rom Multimedia has been a creative and comedic genius for a long time. When, as a camp counselor, he was assigned the job of waking campers each morning, he put together a brilliant series of mock radio interviews (with himself as all characters) to be played over the camp loudspeakers. And everyone woke … Read More >>

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Masquerading As Feminism

On Purim, Jewish men, to varying degrees, imbibe strong drink, and Jewish women do their best to keep them safe and anchored in civilization. The holiday thus may not seem very female-centered. But it is.

Not just because its hero is a heroine and the holy book about the historical event it commemorates is named after her, but because Megillas Esther verily revolves around femininity.

The pliable, preposterous monarch we meet at the Megillah’s start is a poster child (or, perhaps better, poster adolescent) for male chauvinism. His 180-day drinking party, as the Talmud describes it, was a bacchanal of arrested-development “good ol’ boys” acting like louts, and entailed the debasement, and eventual execution, of his queen.

And the next action of the foolhardy king was to organize the antithesis of true respect for women: a beauty contest.

And Achashverosh, of course, ends up being manipulated by a woman, our reticent, modest heroine Esther, and led by her to dispatch the Jews’ mortal enemy, saving her people from his evil plans.

But there’s a good deal more here, too, although it’s a good deal more subtle. Mordechai, the Midrash teaches us, was miraculously able to physically nurse the baby … Read More >>

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The Modern Orthodox Straw Man

By Avrohom Gordimer

There are times when one must take a firm stand and stake out a principled position, or deal with what may be the nightmarish consequences of not standing strong. And there are watershed moments in Jewish history, when new events and trends that portend substantial challenge to the stability of Jewish practice must be addressed. We have just witnessed both of the above transpire.

Leadership of mainstream Orthodox organs which largely represent Modern Orthodoxy has drawn a line and publicly declared that partnership minyanim (prayer groups that identify as Orthodox, in which men and women both lead parts of the service) are not within the parameters of acceptable Orthodox practice. Responding to a proliferation of partnership minyanim, including their occurrence in liberal Orthodox synagogues and the serious challenges to traditional Orthodox tefillah that the partnership minyan phenomenon has engendered, the Orthodox establishment has taken decisive action – action that hearkens back to the historically-defining actions by the same Orthodox establishment regarding the issue of mechitza over half a century ago.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) began the process with the publication of piskei halacha to this effect by R. Hershel Schachter, R. Gedalia … Read More >>

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The Official Unofficial Response to the Unofficial Official Video

Who’s on first?

I would score this as a victory for the team that batted second.

It is thoroughly in good taste.

It also, ironically, leaves no room for the genuine anti-charedi haters. It depicts graphically just how those who choose can easily, if given the chance, transition into roles in the IDF and the workforce, without losing their chitzoniyus or their commitment to halacha.

Enjoy!

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A Follow-Up to My Post on Gay Rights

The comments on my previous post on this subject make a number of useful points.  In the aggregate, however, they do not deal with what I am getting at, namely that the gay rights movement is different, both in its rapidity and its impact, than other major social movements that this country has experienced and that the consequences for religious Jewish life may be serious.  A number of comments refer to intermarriage and how Orthodox life has proceeded without being impeded by the avalanche of intermarriage experienced by American Jewry.  Apart from the not inconsequential matter that from a halachic standpoint homosexuality is a more serious violation than intermarriage, the reality is that the gay rights movement means to change not only how individuals may behave – that is people should be free to determine who they marry – it means to radically change how people deal with gay rights and SSM.

The point is made in Ross Douthat’s terrific piece in Monday’s NY Times.  Its title, “The Terms of Our Surrender,” is what I am getting at.  Douthat begins by recognizing that the battle against gay marriage is lost and then wonders what the terms … Read More >>

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The Rally Clip

[The clip has been removed from YouTube. Kudos to all those responsible, which includes those who realized how toxic the message was, and how counterproductive it was to the stated objectives of the atzeret tefillah. This also includes all those - charedim and non-charedim - who saw a bad thing for what it was, and spoke out. May the organizers of the upcoming American events act as responsibly!]

Sometimes, you just have to tell it like it is.

What is circulating as the “official” clip of the tefilah rally is vile and disgusting.

For all the skepticism that met the rally, the organizers could claim that they had achieved some positive goals. The size of the crowd, its peacefulness and general unity told a story of a remarkable commitment of a people to its Torah. The rally reminded the Israeli public that even in the face of the huge rift that has opened up between haredim and the rest of the country, this was not a community that could be ignored, or that would compromise on what it regarded as its principles. The optimist could hope that one day the rift would be healed, and that all … Read More >>

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Ultra-Cation

It was gratifying to see that a recent essay of mine in the Forward stimulated thoughtful responses.

I had made the case for jettisoning the time-honored (if, to me, less than honorable) term “ultra-Orthodox.” I argued that, like “ultra-conservative” or “ultra-liberal” in domestic politics, the prefix implies extremism, something that isn’t accurate about most charedim.

What best to replace it with is less obvious, as “charedi” is a foreign word, and euphemisms like “fervently Orthodox” insult non-charedi Jews, many of whom are as fervent in their prayer and observances as any charedi Jew (not to mention that some charedi Jews are far from fervent).

I suggested using the unadorned word “Orthodox” to refer to charedim, whose lives, I contended, most resemble those of their forbears.

After all, I argued, self-described “Centrist” and “Modern” and “Open” Orthodox Jews are, well, self-described, with those prefixes of their choices. So why not use “Orthodox” alone, without any modifier, to refer to “black-hatters,” or “yeshivish” folks. (The charedi subset of Chassidim could simply be called Chassidim, a word familiar to English speakers.) Think Coke, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke…

One immediate response to my essay came from Samuel Heilman, a Queens College … Read More >>

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The “Building” of Children Destroys

Reading the news of the “Million Man Atzeres,” that was the statement of our Sages that came to mind. “The ‘destruction’ of elders builds, [while] the ‘building’ of children destroys” [Megillah 31b].

The Yesh Atid [There is a Future] party has no future, because it does not understand our past. This is why the other quote that came to mind is from a more proletarian source — reading that Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy (of Yesh Atid) said that “thousands of chareidim will be inducted into the IDF and begin doing their part,” the line that came unbidden to my mind was “Oh Mickey, what a pity, you don’t understand!”

It really is a pity. Levy does not understand how the Jewish people managed to survive for 2000 years without a land to call our own, something no other nation in history has done. This was only due to our following the Torah, and the voice of Torah sages in each generation. If they think there is a substitute, they should read the Pew Report and ponder the imminent collapse of heterodox Judaism in America and worldwide. Do they really think that simply by assembling Jews in … Read More >>

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“A Next Step” – Round Two

[YA - Dr. Finkelman submitted a long comment that can best be handled by turning it into a post, with my bracketed reactions to him embedded.]

A handful of initial responses.

As for social changes, it is not merely a question of “how much of [changes in the roles of women] we should embrace.” Some things are too pervasive to choose to embrace or not. Gender changes cannot simply be rejected since they are too central to culture.

[YA – I don’t agree at all. We have a pretty good track record rejecting what we need to reject, when we see it as foreign to Torah. We rejected ideas like an eternally-old world, and the superiority of Christianity when they were assumed by the entire cultural surround. All of us live with an abiding sense of authority, even as it has been supplanted by autonomy. We dismiss out of hand the sexual permissiveness that is at least as well established today as the egalitarianism of gender change.

Perhaps you speak here not of attitudinal embrace, but a practical one. Le-maaseh, our wives and daughters do utilize many of the opportunities created by gender change. That does not … Read More >>

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Response To “A Next Step”

Chevra – Let’s try to address your concerns serially. The phenomenal growth of the Orthodox community hardly touches the issue of the korbanos we lost to the heterodox movements. While Orthodoxy grew, that growth hardly matches the literally hundreds of thousands (if not more) for whom the last decades became the terminal point of thousands of years of Jewish lineage. We lived through, and are still living through, a period of shemad – of apostasy, of joining false belief systems. It was not a time of forced shemad, but shemad it was.

Nowhere did R Shachter call supporters of Partnership Minyanim “Adat Korach.” He said that they use a slogan popularized by Adat Korach: we all stood at Sinai; all of us have a vote, and an opinion that counts. R Schachter argues that in weighty matters, only a certain upper tier of talmidei chachamim can offer opinions worth considering.

You describe the leaders of Open Orthodoxy as “observant, learned mevakshei Hashem.” While this has not been my personal experience, let’s grant that description for the sake of argument. It would not change R Shachter’s position in the slightest. OO does not have people acclaimed as talmidei chachamim who … Read More >>

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A Next Step in Debating Partnership Minyanim

By Chaim Saiman and Yoel Finkelman

[Editor’s Note: Publishing what follows may seem out of character for Cross-Currents. While it does not violate our editorial policy, it does challenge what has become a theme of several writers: the illegitimacy of Open Orthodoxy. Nonetheless, we are going to publish it. Here is why:

We do encourage readers to familiarize themselves with different points of view, so long as they do not involve prohibited kefirah. The authors penned their piece respectfully. Both are known to me personally, and are worthwhile emulating in important ways.

Professor Saiman has deep roots outside the haredi world. Yet he does not shy away from going wherever he has to in order to enhance his own Torah study. I was introduced to him through and because of the many hours he spends at the Philadelphia Community Kollel. The rest of us should be so accepting of what we could gain from those outside our immediate community!

Dr. Finkelman writes some of the most trenchant criticism of the haredi world. That is one of his professional subjects of interest. But in private discussion, I have found him to be just as trenchant in his criticism of his … Read More >>

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Is There a Way to Deal with Gay Rights?

The Times Book Review of this past Sunday has a terrific piece by Fareed Zakaria on George F. Kennan’s diaries.  In 1994, when Kennan was ninety, he noted America’s “pathological preoccupation with sex and violence” and then commented on “the weird efforts to claim for homosexuality the status of a proud, noble and promising way of life.”

Some revolutions come quickly and are unanticipated, even though they have long been in the womb of time.  This is true, as we learn with regularity, of political revolutions and of the wonders wrought by technology.  Social revolutions generally move much more slowly, witness in this country the far from complete war on poverty and, perhaps more tellingly, the creeping pace at which the civil rights movement now proceeds.  This makes the extraordinary achievements of the gay rights movement even more spectacular.  This is a social revolution that is breathtaking in the speed at which critical goals, primarily gay marriage, have been achieved.  I cannot think of a parallel situation in all of American history.

One explanation, which tells much of the story, is the reality that gay rights advocacy has been primarily the mission of haves while most … Read More >>

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On the making of Constitutional Arrangements

by Raphael Davidovich

In the latest attempt to quell the ongoing culture wars in Israel, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni last year gave Law Professor Ruth Gavison a formidable task. Gavison was asked to help prepare “a constitutional arrangement dealing with Israel’s identity” as “a Jewish and Democratic state.” The task is a fascinating one, one I love discussing because it is an area of personal interest for me. But it is a task that should not be fulfilled.

Whenever someone in the Israeli Leadership advocates a new constitutional arrangement, it should be mandatory to reread the history of why Israel presently has no formal constitutional arrangement as most other countries do. The brief history is as follows: The Constituent Assembly charged with the writing of a Constitution for the State of Israel ended its task in 1949, its job undone, and instead became the newborn State’s first Parliament. It would be simple to conclude that the document wasn’t written because of the machinations and political ploys of Ben-Gurion, or this group or that power-hungry faction. It would also be simple to argue that the group couldn’t come to agreement because of the old truism that Jews are argumentative, like that old joke about Ben-Gurion being the Prime Minister of two million prime ministers. But these arguments would be wrong. We need to properly understand what happened, and it says something about Jewry in Israel and throughout the world.

The constituent assembly could not write a constitution because a true constitution can only be a viable document when applied to a group that has certain basic outlooks and principles in common that they wish to codify and establish as axiomatic, virtually unarguable, to future generations of leaders who might be tempted by the need for political expedience to ignore those principles.

To be clear, what Israelis who say they want a Constitutional Arrangement really mean is that they want a two-tier system of laws: One set of Supreme Laws, which usually includes a Bill of Individual Rights, and one set of all other laws passed by the Knesset which would be subservient to that first set. This concept originated in our times with the American Constitution.

The American Constitutional experiment contained a feature that was novel to the world of political realism at the time, even though nowadays it’s so common that it’s taken for granted; that a State should have an upper tier of Law and a lower tier of law. The higher level of law, with fewer words, usually loftier, dominates; it insists that all other laws passed by the legislature conform to it or be declared null and void. This is specifically what is meant nowadays by people when they speak of a country having a Written Constitution. This is actually sloppy wording, as it leads to such sentences as “England does not have a written constitution”, or “Israel does not have a written constitution.”

The reality is that of course, both England and Israel have written constitutions. What they lack is the legal framework that mandates that some laws be subservient to other laws. Their constitutions are in the laws that set up the government. They have laws that provide for various freedoms, civil and political rights and limitations. They do not set up a hierarchy among those laws, one trumping the other. They adhere to the older principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty, rejected by the US Constitution, that one Parliament cannot limit another. For example, one Parliament cannot pass a law that states that it may not be revoked except by unanimous consent. All laws are equal to each other, even the ones that scholars call “constitutional”.

Why do countries, such as the USA, want a two-tier system? The answer, briefly stated earlier, is that the founding people and founding leaders of a nation want certain laws enshrined at a level that later legislatures or leaders will not be allowed to override because of the political expediencies of the moment.

Now in many countries, including Israel, it is well known that different groups of people have different ideals they believe are worth preserving at all costs. If a nation has several groups of people with conflicting ideals, the differences cannot and should not be resolved at the “Constitutional” level at all! Put another way, if one group that does not have behind it the true political will of the vast majority of the people, tries to take advantage of a propitious moment and attempt to enact certain reforms at the constitutional level, trouble will usually ensue for one of several reasons:
Continue reading → On the making of Constitutional Arrangements

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The Anarchy Option

My interest in the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Sochi was roughly equivalent to my interest in the recently concluded International Kennel Club dog show in Chicago. Which is to say, nil.

But a “Jewish” issue that trailed in the snow behind the Sochi shenanigans was amusing. At least, initially. Pondered a bit, it was a reminder of something disturbing.

An ice dancer named Charlie White, who, with his partner, won a gold medal at the competition, was roundly celebrated by the media for his accomplishment, and by the Jewish media for his accomplishment… and Jewishness.

Despite the latter assertion, though, the skater’s mother apparently notified the Detroit Jewish News, the original reporter of Mr. White’s Jewish credentials, that neither she nor her son is a member of the tribe.

After some research, the paper discovered that the gold medal winner’s only Jewish connection was a Jewish stepfather; it apologized for its original reportage.

The Reform movement wouldn’t at present consider Charlie’s connection to the Jewish people sufficient to automatically qualify him as Jewish in its eyes. But it has long accepted a “patrilineal” definition of “Jewishness” – that is to say that, contrary to halacha, it … Read More >>

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Minyanim and Meta-Halacha

The article below appeared in Haaretz earlier this week, under the title “Partnership minyan is an innovation too far.” It is reproduced here with Haaretz’s permission.

What educators call a “teaching moment” is presented by the issue of “partnership minyanim,” prayer groups that aim to provide Orthodox Jewish women greater opportunity to participate in services.

Although halakha is distinctly male-centered in the realm of communal prayer (as in the requirement of ten men to establish a minyan, a quorum permitting the recital of certain prayers), “partnership minyanim” jury-rig prayer services so that women lead parts that arguably may not require a man.

The teaching moment is about how halakha works.

Differences of opinion are part and parcel of not only the Talmud but some contemporary halakhic issues; different conclusions may be made by different poskim, or halakhic decisors.

But a truth that tends to draw fire but remains a truth all the same is that not every rabbi is a qualified decisor. Few, indeed, are.

The most trenchant text here may be a Talmudic aphorism in Tractate Nedarim.

“[What might seem] constructive [advice] of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive [advice] of … Read More >>

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What the ASA’s Boycott Taught (Reminded) Me

by Rabbi Akiva Males

In the closing months of 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli universities. This move is part of a much larger effort in the ongoing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement intended to isolate Israel. In the aftermath of this academic boycott, many of Israel’s supporters rightfully voiced our hurt feelings, disappointment, and/or strong disagreement with the ASA’s offensive maneuver.

In January, before my wife and I traveled to visit family in Israel, I read an important article in The NY Jewish Week by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin which reminded me of a crucial yet simple concept. As supporters of Israel, we need to find responsible ways to express our outrage with the ASA. At the same time, we also need to recognize the many American universities who found the strength to resist joining in this boycott.

It is not enough to scream “gevalt” when we have been wounded. We also have to call out “thank you” to those who are our friends, to those who stood up for truth, to those who have refused to have their educational institutions seduced by the all too common siren song of anti-Israeli behavior. We … Read More >>

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Reb Meir Schuster zt”l

I have to add a few words of personal appreciation for Rabbi Schuster zt”l… just because I don’t know where I would be if not for his influence in my life. By the time I arrived in Israel between my sophomore and junior years of college, I had already considered becoming more observant, but had not stayed with it — and my trip to Israel wasn’t supposed to be about Jewish discovery.

If I was not what people called a “Wall bouncer,” someone whom Rav Schuster discovered at the Kotel, it was because I didn’t even make it to the Wall. By the time I descended from the bus to Jerusalem, Let’s Go guide in hand, I had plans to spend a few nights at a hostel on King George Street. But one of Reb Meir’s Heritage House employees was there, in t-shirt, jeans, ubiquitous sandalim, and Tzitzis. Once he knew I was looking for a place to stay and was, in fact, Jewish, he escorted me to Reb Meir’s free Jewish youth hostel, right there in the Old City.

Everything was set up to give student travelers the maximum opportunity to learn more about their Judaism while they … Read More >>

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Rav Meir Schuster: The Man at The Wall, zt”l

by Bracha Goetz

It was almost time for Shabbos.

There were a number of things I still needed to do, but it was hard for me to stop reading the stories that were just then being collected about Rabbi Meir Schuster, who, in his late sixties, had become very ill with a degenerative illness known as Lewy Body Disease, which combines the symptoms of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. The stories collected are all about what Reb Meir did with his own life, and the many, many lives that he helped transform. An intensity in my heart was building with each word I read, and I was transported back, over thirty years ago.

It is 1976. The man who was to become my husband was praying at the Kotel. Larry had finished his time in a kibbutz ulpan, and was still volunteering in a development town in the Negev, when he decided to spend the weekend in Jerusalem. He was scheduled to return to the States a few weeks later, with no clear plans. Larry put a note in a crevice in the Wall and then prayed sincerely to find his path in life. When he finished, there was a tap on his shoulder. It was Rabbi Schuster, asking him, “Do you have the time?” Thank G-d, Larry did have the time, and he followed Reb Meir to a yeshiva for baalei teshuva where he began the process of finding his life’s path. After nine years of learning and teaching at Yeshiva Aish HaTorah, young wandering Larry became Rabbi Aryeh Goetz.

It is 1978, and after completing my first year of medical school, I was volunteering on the oncology ward at Hadassah Hospital, visiting with patients who were dying, while my secret mission was to learn the purpose of living. During my first few days in Israel, I went to the Kotel, and Reb Meir Schuster found me there. His purity and his sincerity came right into my heart. I began to study with Rebbetzin Denah Weinberg, and at the women’s division of Ohr Someyach, as the process of understanding the purpose of living began for me as well.

It is 1979, and every torch is lit on the Menorah beside the Kotel, as it is the eighth night of Chanukah. My soon-to-be husband is sitting near me on a bench in the Kotel plaza. He tells me that on the eighth day of Chanukah, the spiritual potential for dedication is at its greatest. He wants to know if on this night full of the power of dedication, I will agree to be his partner in life, so we can continue our separate journeys together.

Reb Meir is there, too, on the night when my husband asked me to marry him. We both see him at the same moment. He is looking for more and more lost neshamas, waiting to be found, including those who, like us, will be blessed to find each other too.

Reb Meir has been with us ever since, as well, helping us raise our children to strive for the simple purity that he offered both of us. From our oldest son who has opened the Yeshiva High School of Arizona, to our youngest daughter, who was a madrecha in the Heritage House that Reb Meir established, Reb Meir’s pure idealism has gotten infused into our children’s lives. His gentle tap has even come to be felt by all the grandchildren that have also now blessed our lives, thank G-d.

And we were only two of the tens of thousands of neshamas that Reb Meir helped lead to the spiritual wellsprings craved. The ripples spreading out from all the neshamas he effected, are not possible to count. Not in this world. The reach of this one humble man is endless.

From what I learned from reading about Reb Meir, his parents were survivors of the Holocaust from Poland, and they were not observant, although Reb Meir’s grandmother still was. Stanley, as he was known then, was brought up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and attended public school there. When Rabbi Abraham Yehoshua Twerski opened a Talmud Torah in Milwaukee, through his bubbie’s gentle urging, her grandson, Meir Tzvi, known to everyone else as Stanley Schuster, became one of its first students. Rabbi Twerski was devoted to being m’karev Reb Meir, and he helped young Meir Schuster catch up in his Hebrew studies.

Rabbi Twerski recalled Reb Meir’s tremendous thirst for learning about Judaism, and he said that he used to daven and bentch with such tremendous fervor, soon after he learned how, that it inspired all around him. He remembered when “Stanley” at the age of 14, with his parents’ consent, went off to learn in yeshiva in Skokie, Illinois. He had already become a masmid (very devoted Torah learner) and from there, he went on to learn in Yeshiva Ner Israel in Baltimore, Maryland, where he studied for seven years, and got semicha.

At Ner Israel, he was known for being an extremely dedicated student and for doing a semi-speech fast on Shabbos, only speaking words of Torah. According to his friends, Reb Meir was an excellent listener, but a very quiet person who spoke very little, not wanting to speak one superfluous word. He was just about the last person any of them would have imagined going into the field of kiruv.

Reb Meir was always on the look-out for ways to do chesed and help others, and always with his great big, warm smile. Reb Meir also took on a job that was definitely not sought after, of going around to awaken his fellow students. He would faithfully walk through the dorms every morning, calling in Yiddish repeatedly and with such pure earnestness, “Wake up, Wake up – it’s time to serve Hashem.”

After Reb Meir got married, he and his wife, Esther, moved to Eretz Yisroel in 1968. They came with two suitcases , and intended to stay for a year, while Reb Meir learned in the Mir Yeshiva. He never went back to America until many years later, after he had established the Heritage House, and needed to raise funds for it. (No wonder he was able to encourage thousands of others to stay in Eretz Yisroel longer too!)
Continue reading → Rav Meir Schuster: The Man at The Wall, zt”l

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In Brief:

And Now For Something Completely Different

-- 3:28 pm

This is worth posting just because of the “conventional wisdom” that the Charedim are an overwhelmingly serious bunch. That, and the guy’s name is Yankel.

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5 Comments

Call For Material to Honor R Hershel Schachter

-- 3:55 pm

[Editor's Note: Given the large place that Rav Schachter's thought has contributed to the discussions on the blog, the request to post the request that follows seems eminently reasonable.]

In honor of Rav Schachter’s continued and unflagging ahavah and mesiras nefesh for Torah, Am Yisrael and his talmidim in particular, we are soliciting your personal thoughts, remembrances and anecdotes of Rav Schachter that will be assembled and presented in book form to Rav Schachter personally this Pesach. Your submission can be in long or short form, in any language, and on any topic, but should principally be a message that demonstrates your hakaras hatov to Rav Schachter and the influence and impact that he has had on your life and those around you.

We have already received nearly 50 submissions, but each additional submission adds immeasurably to the whole collection, and we would appreciate if you would take a few moments to provide your own.

Please feel free to send your message to this email (RHSGIFT@gmail.com).
If possible, please also include some brief biographical information about yourself: if you were a talmid in the Shiur, where you now live, your profession, and any other information you think would be meaningful or relevant.

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The Second Son

-- 9:14 am

A Pesach-themed piece I penned for the Forward appears here

Chag kasher visame’ach to all Cross-Currents readers, and all of Klal Yisrael!

AS

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For Pre-Pesach Insomniacs

-- 10:34 pm

My semi-annual machshava shiur (for women, but suitable for all kinds of chromosomal construction) is available for free download as a .wav file, or here as an mp3.

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Best Purim Gragger Ever

-- 2:33 pm

[Very unfortunate update and postscript. Hat tip to Chaim Saiman]

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KePurim

-- 1:14 am

[from R. Yossi Huttler, Cross-Currents' poet laureate]

KePurim

if in middle of night
I cannot sleep
may I disturb Your peace
open Your book of remembrance
read to You
though I know You
don’t forget

may I point
to where and when
I did some good
so that I merit
mention
for some chayim
tovim

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Much Ado About “Ultra”

-- 4:01 pm

The Forward recently published an article of mine about the term “Ultra-Orthodox.” You can read it here .

A response to it, by Professor Samuel Heilman, is here .

And, finally, a rejoinder is here.

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Vive la Différence

-- 3:19 pm

When MK David Rotem, of the Yisrael Beytenu party, said that the Reform movement is “another Jewish religion,” and then added that the Charedim [which Times of Israel translates as "ultra-Orthodox," but I have little doubt that he used the correct and less inflammatory term "charedim"] could “of course” be considered “also another Jewish religion,” one thing happened: Reform leaders exploded, and got him to “walk back” his remarks.

If you read carefully, he may not have expressed himself well, but there is no significant change between what he said to Army Radio that got him into hot water, and in his “clarification.” What he said the first time was “the Reform are all Jews,” which, given the level of participation by non-Jewish partners in services, we know to be a substantial exaggeration. In his “clarification,” he said “I have never said belonging to the Reform movement makes anyone less Jewish.” Both times, he expressed a completely normative halachic position.

Here’s what didn’t happen: any similar uproar from the chareidim, the “ultra-Orthodox.” No fellow MKs berated him, whether in the plenary, committee room, or outside in the halls. No gedolim released proclamations or contacted the press. His comments were simply a nonissue.

The difference is simple: the chareidim don’t need David Rotem’s validation. We know who we are, we know what we believe, and we know it accords with thousands of years of Jewish tradition. So if he believes that he follows a different religion than ours, it’s his loss.

What this difference says about the Reform movement and its leaders is the topic of a longer essay.

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Phyllis Chesler Supports W4W?

-- 12:08 pm

Women For the Wall seems to have caught a leading member of WOW being too honest once again. Phyllis Chesler was a founder of WOW and now is part of the “Original WOW” that refuses to permit peace in the traditional women’s section. Yet here’s what she said on WOW’s Facebook Wall:

WOW Board knows that it has driven away many Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshipers by their religious practices, non-stop desire for media attention, their willingness to criticize Israel in North America and Europe during the years of the Al Aqsa Intifada.

I wonder what those who said WOW just wants to pray in their own style and don’t want media are saying now. Other than “oh no, she told the truth!”

Yes, Facebook is a time killer. But sometimes you catch important news…

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Why I Don’t Write More Often

-- 12:45 am

I should feel complimented that I get email all the time asking why I haven’t commented yet about this or that important story.

The simple answer is that I don’t like to write unless I feel that I have something semi-insightful to add to what is already out there. If Cross-Currents were to become a regular source of news to the community, I would have to quit my day-job.

I stumbled upon Frank Rich’s swan-song piece as an op-ed writer for the New York Times. He conveyed perfectly what I have thought for a long while – and why I have resisted writing more, even when I could carve out the time. I think he identifies an occupational hazard of many blogsters, particularly those who gain a following

I didn’t like what the relentless production of a newspaper column was doing to my writing. That routine can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about, or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambiguous conclusion. Believe it or not, an opinion writer can sometimes get sick of his own voice.

Of course, as more Americans turn to alternative sources for all their news, I would be open to a career change, despite Frank Rich’s warning. So if anyone has an “in” with Jon Stewart and can convince him to add me to his list of providers alongside Steve Colbert, have his people speak to my people.

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Who, Really, Are the Orthodox?

-- 1:07 pm

It’s rare that I simply refer to another article, but “I am Orthodox, and Orthodox is me” speaks for itself. I think the piece is stronger because the writer is both relatively unknown, and a woman. She truly speaks for us all when she says “those stereotypes about ‘the Orthodox’ are talking about me.”

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A Note of No Great Consequence

-- 8:58 am

Over the years I have written a few short stories and poems, only one of which I have shared with the public (in a book I published in 1981). I’ve decided to post some of that material on my website, rabbiavishafran.com, under the category “fiction.” So far, only one story, for children (sort of), is posted there, but I hope to edit and post others in the near future.

You can find the current posting here . If you have any interest in future fiction postings, please feel free to monitor the “fiction” category on the site every so often.

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