Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Improving the Conversion Experience

Bethany Mandel (Twitter)
Last October as a result of the egregious behavior of Barry Freundel, a once respected Modern Orthodox rabbi, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) decided to review its standardized conversion protocols (GPS - Geirus Protocol and Standards). This was done as a reaction to Freundel’s abuse of power - feeding his voyeuristic compulsions. Freundel secretly set up cameras in the Mikva so he could watch and record his female converts completely naked. (Immersion in a ritual pool known as a Mikva is a one of the requirements of all converts). He was caught and eventually sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison.

The RCA set up committee consisting of RCA rabbis and female experts in their areas of concern. These included a convert who is an expert in litigation,a teacher of family purity laws, a Yoetzet, a female convert who was one of Freundel’s victims, and a psychotherapist. The RCA has announced their recommendations. Which deal with a broad range of issues that go beyond the precipitating event of Freundel’s voyeurism.

One may recall that Rabbi Steven Pruzansky resigned from his membership in the RCA conversion court of his community. He did so to protest what he saw a feminist motive infiltrating the Halachic process of conversions by virtue of the fact that women would be involved in this committee.

In my view he was grossly mistaken in that perception. These women were not involved at all in the Halachic process. And feminism had absolutely nothing to do with choosing to include women in that committee. The reasons women were chosen should be obvious. Female input is vital to assuring that the concerns of female converts are understood and properly dealt with. No one on that committee was in a position to change any of the conversion protocols.

If I understand correctly - their sole purpose was to study the problems involved in some conversions and make recommendations where they felt improvement was needed. This is exactly what they did.  To the best of my knowledge none of these recommendations come anywhere near violating any Halacha. Nor do they advance the cause of feminism one iota. They are all good suggestions and I suspect the RCA will adopt them all.

The fact that the religious authorities that guide the RCA consists of Rabbis Gedlia Dov Schwartz,  Hershel Shachter, and Mordechai Willig add to my conviction that Rabbi Pruzansky was not only wrong, but by his resignation insinuated that these distinguished rabbis have sold out to feminism. I am 100% convinced that if the RCA set up a committee that in any way did what Rabbi Pruzansky accused them of, they would have resigned from the RCA.  Does Rabbi Pruzansky believe feel that their judgment is impaired?  

It is a testament to the RCA that their committee’s deliberations have gotten approval from Bethany Mandel, one of the members of that committee and the victim who exposed Freundel to the public.

There are some interesting statistics that have been compiled by this committee via a survey they took of RCA converts and rabbis. The purpose of which is to get their input into what they would like to see improved in the conversion process that they experienced. 439 Orthodox converts and 107 sponsoring rabbis were interviewed.  Among their findings are answers to questions dealt with here. One of which surprised me. In answer to a question of why they converted to Judaism the survey:

 Eighty percent cited “spiritual-intellectual search” as their reason for Orthodox conversion.

The conventional wisdom is that most converts do it for emotional reasons. Like feeling more welcome, or seeing an Orthodox lifestyle as more family friendly. Not necessarily intellectual ones that might be reached by rational thought. Although I have said that I believe that there must be an intellectual reason as well, I thought it was secondary to the emotional one. But if this survey is a reflection of reality -  it seems I stand corrected. 80% is a huge percentage of converts. And they came to Judaism because they believed it to be Emes.  They discovered a spiritual truth reached via intellectual means.

Now atheists can say that they too reached their conclusions by intellectual means. But what they can’t say is that those who went in the opposite direction and became observant didn’t. 80% of them did.

There are a few other statistics that I found interesting. Like 78% of RCA converts are women. And 72% are between the ages of 20-39. But for me, what stood out was the fact that the reasons why people convert to Judaism are intellectual. And I am very happy to hear that. 

Monday, July 06, 2015

A Tale of Two Women

Rebbetzin Ilana Freedman
I guess it depends whose telling the story. Just as one might see the lifestyle of a Charedi woman as being a ‘slave’ (as does Ruth Colian) one might see that same lifestyle as a form of emancipation. *This is in fact how Ilana Freedman sees it.  Ilana comes from a secular background and was drawn to observance after an incident in a nightclub where a man she had never met slapped her on the bottom. Her reaction to that was as follows: 
“I was livid. I thought, ‘When did this supposed feminist revolution happen that someone thought it was OK to do that?’ For a long time, I’d felt that goyish [non-Jewish] culture had become over-sexualised and Western women objectified. I looked at Judaism and I didn’t see that.” 
The rest of the story is that she withdrew from that culture and started embracing an observant lifestyle - eventually meeting her husband, a rabbi of an Orthodox Shul in England. She goes on to describe what her new life is like, describing it in glowing terms. Thus illustrating that an observant lifestyle honors and respects women far more than the general culture which is so heavily influenced by feminism. Which she blames for incidents like the one that steered her away for it and toward observance.

As I have said in the past, people that convert to Judaism or become observant from a non observant background have a fascination for me.  Mrs. Freedman’s journey is illuminating. It tells me that her reason for changing her lifestyle so drastically is because she saw it as the right way to live. Not because of any philosophical thought process concluding that God exists and that the Torah is His word. I’m sure that she believes that unequivocally. As I do. But that is not what brought her in. Her life is now far more satisfying than it was as a secular woman.  I am jealous of people that find Judaism on their own.

This is unlike those of us that were raised that way from birth. We did not have the opportunity to discover these truths on our own. We just assumed them because that is what we were taught. The accusation by atheists that had rational Orthodox Jews not been raised that way, we would not be believers either - is contradicted by people like Ilana Freedman and every other Baal Teshuva that finds their way to observance.

Miriam Kliers
But then there is Miriam Kliers. Just like Ilana Freedman she too rejected the culture in which she was raised. But her story is the exact opposite of Mrs. Freedman’s: 
For Miriam Kliers, 42, the “warm bath of Haredi womanhood” is an illusion. Born and raised in Stamford Hill, she recalls being struck at a young age by the hypocrisies of an upbringing that taught women they were central to Haredi life while denying them an education. When Kliers asked permission to sit maths and English GCSEs, she was told she’d have to pay for the examinations herself.
“Of course, my parents had no interest,” Kliers says. “I was destined to be a good Haredi wife.” By her mid-20s Kliers was unhappily married, raising three children and was the sole family breadwinner. She felt disillusioned with Haredi life. 
She goes on to describe the Orthodoxy in which she was raised in the most disparaging terms.

One might think that becoming observant requires great sacrifice – while leaving it gives you complete freedom. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. It was Miriam Kliers’ new life that required great sacrifice. But she says she has no regrets. It freed her from a life she could not accept. She now attends a support group with people of like experiences. I am reminded of Shulem Deen who followed a similar path and had similar issues after leaving his observant way of life.

I have to assume that Miriam Kliers is an anomaly for that community. Most people that are raised Charedi stay that way. And most of those seem happy with their lives. But I wonder how many people have issues like her’s. And just keep them secret because the sacrifice of leaving is too great. And their choice to stay is just the lesser of 2 evils.

I don’t know the answer to that. If I had to guess, I would say that most people are legitimately happy with their lives. But I’ll bet there are more than a few people like Miriam Kliers who prefer to stay in the closet because they fear the dire consequences of leaving. (And there are probably a lot of people in between those two extremes.)

I wonder though if the past observant lifestyle of Miriam Kliers is the same as the current observant lifestyle of Ilana Freedman.  I suspect that they are not. I don’t know much about Stamford Hill. But after reading a about that community, I sense that their lives have far more strictures than those of Ilana Freedman’s. For example Ilana Freedman’s secular background gave her tools to better cope in her community. A community that accepts her background and supports her using what she learned there. 
Freedman – who migrated from traditional to ultra-orthodox Judaism – is a biology teacher and has written online about issues facing Jewish women. She is “a Facebook-hip Haredi woman. 
I doubt that Mrs. Freedman would have chosen a community that forbade those activities the way a community in Stamford Hill might.

It also occurs to me that given the chance Miriam Kliers probably could have stayed observant in a more permissive Orthodox community. Her desire to satisfy an “insatiable itch” to get an education would be welcomed in the Modern Orthodox world… and even in the mainstream moderate Charedi world. Something she was denied in her old world. 

Another example is her issue with contraception. While her old community forbids it except in cases of Pikuach Nefesh - where one’s life or health is seriously is threatened by a pregnancy - this is not the case in the world of Modern Orthodoxy and in the world of most non Chasidic Charedim. There are many instances where Orthodox women are permitted to use contraception. And not all of them involve Pikuach Nefesh.

I don’t know if she would have opted for such a life. But we will never know because to the best of my knowledge she did not try. She had most likely been indoctrinated to see Modern Orthodoxy in nearly the same light as heterodoxy. Her social skills were probably incompatible with a Modern Orthodox lifestyle. And perhaps more importantly, her negative experiences with what she understood to be the strict requirements of observance made her just want to drop everything and run away as far and as fast from it  as she could.

The stories of these two women have added to my understanding of why some people make life altering decisions of either embracing observant Judaism or rejecting it. But there is still so much left to learn. And much that can be done to help people who suffer by those decisions make better choices.

*Please Note:On her Facebook page, Mrs. Freedman said the following:
Really NOT pleased with the article. I was supposed to get quote approval. Reading through it I hate the impression it gives of me and so much of what is written I simply didn't say. Too much to list.
I disagreed with her and thought she came off rather well. Which is how I characterized her words. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Ruth Colian, a Feminist I Can Support

Ubezchutan party head, Ruth Colian
Charedi women are slaves. So says Ruth  Colian, the woman who founded Ubezchutan, a political party in Israel representing  Charedi women. Her party ran in the last election but did not receive enough votes to qualify for any seats in the Kenesset.

The truth is that this party never will. As the article points out: 
Despite the problems facing haredi women, Ubezchutan’s chances of entering the Knesset are slim, given the way the haredi public, including the women, largely adhere to the instructions of the leading rabbis and vote for the established parties. 
But what about Mrs. Colian’s assertions? If one looks at the facts, one would be hard pressed to see the role of women in the Charedi world as anything but slaves. Albeit willing ones (at least on the surface). They are the breadwinners and the child bearers. They take care of the children and the house. They cook and clean and work menial jobs for meager pay. Even those that work at better jobs do it for a lot less pay than their male counterparts.

I suspect that most Charedi women in Israel are resigned to their role in life. They have been taught from day one to do exactly what they are doing – for the noble goal of allowing their husbands to learn Torah. Husbands that spend as much 18 hours a day studying Gemarah and its commentaries. So if asked, I would think the typical response would be that this is their Avodas HaShem. Something for which they are gladly willing to sacrifice.

But I wonder what they actually feel privately – in the deepest recesses of their minds. I find it hard to believe that at some level Charedi women that have taken upon themselves so much responsibility don’t feel put upon… or downright resentful of what they have been consigned to do in life.

That said I’m sure that there are many exceptional Charedi women who are truly happy with their lot. But I’m not so sure the mainstream feels that idealistic after a while.

This is not to say that mainstream Charedi women want to destroy their lifestyles. But I do believe that many Charedi women would like to see some fundamental changes being made in order to lighten their load. I think this is what Mrs. Colian is saying.

But I wonder just how much efficacy her party would have even if they won seats in the Kenesset. The Charedi politicians are not the ones who set policy in their party. Their agenda in the Kenesset  is set by their rabbinic leadership. A leadership that sees their mission dictated by God through His Torah. They call it Daas Torah. They are thus impervious to the voice of dissent, not matter what challenges the dissenter presents.

This is why for example not a single Charedi party will accept women as members. Their leadership says they don’t belong there and that’s the end of it.

But the issues Mrs. Colian raises are real and need to be dealt with. Why do Charedi women have the lowest levels of life expectancy in the country? Why is their rate of breast cancer and mortality 30% higher than the rest of the female population? 
“Haredi women are ranked eighth in Israel for life expectancy, while haredi men are ranked second. This is an unbelievable gap,” (Colian) continued. 
How Charedi is Mrs. Colian and her party really? There are those that will say that by definition, Mrs. Colian has removed herself form the Charedi world by – in effect – challenging the rabbinic leadership by seeking change which they do not approve of. I suppose that’s probably true. Unquestioning fealty to Daas Torah is the defining characteristic of the Charedi world.  And that is exactly what she is challenging: 
“The community is becoming more aware of this cynical use and manipulation of our great rabbis and will come to understand that something really smells bad with this kind of political model...” 
To say the least, you can’t be Charedi and say something like that!

But the fact is that she comes from that world and considers herself part of it. She is Chareida L’Dvar HaShem. And her lifestyle is otherwise consistent with the Charedi lifestyle.

It remains to be seen if she will eventually have any impact in the Charedi world. My guess is that she won’t. If history has taught us anything about that world, it is that Daas Torah reigns supreme.  I see no reason for that to change. That said the problems in the Charedi world keep nibbling away at their foundation.

Poverty exists and that is due to the very things that make these women into slaves: the idea of husbands learning full time with negligible if any financial contributions. I can’t see things surviving as they are. Somewhere there is going to have to a paradigm shift. Is Ruth Colian a female Don Quixote? Whether she is or not, I salute her.  Whether she will be any kind of catalyst for change remains to be seen.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Sex Abuse and the Shidduch Crisis

Rabbi Ratzon Arussi (from A Mother in Israel blog)
The so-called Shidduch crisis has caused problems beyond the parameters of the Shidduch crisis itself. This is particularly true of the right wing Lithuanian type Yeshiva world. The crisis has caused a lot of parents to go overboard in how they present their daughter to Shadchanim, the almost exclusive way that young men and women in that world meet and date.

By ‘overboard’ I mean that they become somewhat unscrupulous in their zeal to put on the best possible face on their daughter, often to the point of lying about them in serious matters. They feel justified in doing so because of a society where so many young women become ‘old maids’ by the time they are 25.

Their chances of getting married at that age decrease significantly. This is not news. There has been much angst expressed by the right over this phenomenon for many years. And many suggestions have been made to try and change the dynamic. Including various types of financial incentives for Shadchanim to set up older singles.

So it is understandable that parents would go to great lengths to hide information that could harm their daughters Shidduch chances. A lot of this would change if this world would adopt more ways of meeting and dating – broadening the chances for a successful Shidduch. But in the world of the right where extremes of Tznius seems to be increasing almost daily, this is not going to happen. There is no chance, for example that a Charedi wedding will ever have mixed seating for married older adults let alone unmarried young people. So that young people can have a chance to meet on their own. The trend is for ever increasing separation of the sexes. That makes the Shadchan (whether paid or family member) very powerful. They are the only game in town.  And this makes for some very concerned parents - fearful for their daughter’s future.

This situation has been used by some rabbis – with the best of intentions – to tell female victims of sex abuse to not report their abuse to anyone, including the police. They justifiably fear that news like that will hurt a young woman’s chances of getting married.  I don’t think there is any question about that. In a world where fine young women with no baggage at all have difficulties finding a mate, young women that have been sexually abused or molested may find in nigh impossible!

This situation was demonstrated in a media sting operation in Israel as reported by Hannah Katsman on her blog, A Mother in Israel.

Briefly a young woman disguised herself as a victim of sex abuse by the Charedi father of a friend of hers. She went to Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Ono, asking him for advice about what happened to her (which of course never happened at all). After a discussion about the exact nature of the act, he advised her that she should stay away from this man and his daughter (her friend) and not report her molestation to the police or anyone else. Because if she did, it would ruin her Shidduch chances.

What about the danger of that ‘molester” doing this to other potential victims? His answer was that as important as that was, if it got out that she was molested, it would ruin her life. Chayecha Kodman. Protecting one’s own life precedes protecting those of others. He then advised her to go out and find her Zivug (marriage partner).

When confronted with the truth, Rabbi Arussi wrote a long letter explaining in great detail his perspective on what happened. He defended his actions in this particular case adding that he otherwise always tells victims to report the abuse to the police. And he also excoriated the media for tricking him for nefarious reasons (ratings and to ‘hang the religious public’.) He was in fact the victim here, he said.

Mrs. Katsman ends up summarizing her issues with Rabbi Arussi: 
1.The media’s “agenda” is irrelevant. The public has the right to know how its officials respond to complaints.
2. A chief rabbi of a city is a paid employee of the government, not a volunteer as he implies. Unlike most private therapists, he even has clerks to answer his phone calls.
3. He did not consider whether a victim of sex abuse might need treatment. At no point did he express sorrow about the incident, or inquire about the caller’s emotional state.
4. He told the caller not to report a crime.
5. He made it all about whether or not there was penetration. According to this theory, which abuse advocate Yerachmiel Lopin calls the “penetration fallacy™”, there is no harm done if intercourse did not occur. However, this is merely a justification for protecting the abuser. Penetration is irrelevant as far as Israeli law or trauma to the victim.
6. He fancies himself an expert, yet has little or no training in issues surrounding sex abuse or in questioning abuse victims. The police have specially trained investigators. They know how to ask the right questions in order to determine whether a charge is credible, what kind of help the victim needs, and if the case is prosecutable.
I can’t really argue with her conclusions. However, even though his advice to her was misguided, there is not a doubt in my mind that Rabbi Arrusi had anything but the best of intentions for his petitioner. This was not a case of protecting the abuser. Although it obliviously ends up that way when abuse is kept secret.

Who to blame for Rabbi Arussi’s  reaction to this young woman? I think the answer is clear. It is the Shidduch system in the right wing world. A system that has evolved into a crisis that is so severe that protecting the public comes second - lest a young innocent woman that was raped or molested gets punished a second time by reducing her chances for marriage considerably. I don’t think this is arguable.

I have  long been arguing for a broader approach to dating in the Charedi world. One that would provide opportunities for young men and women to meet on their own (as well as retaining the Shidduch system). No avenue should be closed to young people in finding Shidduchim. 

It may not be the panacea to end all dating problems in that world. But it would certainly help if young people were given a chance to meet on their own without the extensive research by parents and Shadchanim where even the slightest defect – let alone a sexual molestation - can prevent a young woman from ever being recommended to a young man.

Of course my words will fall on very deaf ears. No respected religious leader in the Charedi world will ever suggest doing something that would get him ostracized from his rabbinic peers. He will be labeled as lax about morals. 

Which is too bad. What will it take for the Charedi Rabbinic leadership to see that their current paradigm for Shiduchim is not working? When will they realize that throwing money at Shadchanim in order to motivate them to set up older singles is at most a band aid. I wonder how that’s all working out for them, anyway? Has there been any significant improvement in the Shidduch crisis?

When will they do something to prevent circumstances like that which befell Rabbi Arussi? That this one was fake does not mean it can’t happen. I’m sure it can and probably does. And that gives sex abusers and molesters free license to chose very young Charedi  women as their targets. Because they know they are going to get away with it.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Why Do They Do it?

R' Aharon Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel
Jews are a bunch of greedy criminals. That’s one of the canards leveled at us by the antisemites of the world.  What basis do they have for saying this? Unfortunately a very real one. Once again we see the most religious looking Jews among us committing financial fraud against the government. The kind of Jews who see themselves as exemplars of Judaism – serving God beyond the letter of the law.  Only this time they have more in common with Reyna Martinez and Angel Campos.  2 non Jews who cheated Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Payments, a government welfare program designed for the poor.

Mordechai Friedman and Chayim Deutsch, both of Kiryas Joel have stolen tens of thousands of dollars in Medicaid benefits (also designed for the poor) by underreporting their income and creating false documents.

These people are crooks, there are no two ways about it. The question is, how can people  in Kiryas Joel – Satmar Chasdidm - that are so careful about observing Halachos like Shabbos and Kashrus, be so careless about Geneiva – stealing? Which is forbidden by the Torah.

I see several possible reasons for this. But first let me say that they are Frum in many areas because that is how they are brought up. They are taught from the earliest age that the Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom (religious rituals) are – not only to be observed but to be enhanced.  So that in matters of Kashrus for example, they only trust their own Hechsherim. They believe that their Kashrus standards are much higher than any other Kashrus agency. They do not rely on any Kulos or leniencies. Their Kashrus agency – the Central Rabbinical Congress - prides itself on that. No Kiryas Joel Chasid would be caught dead with a product bearing only an OU or OK Hechsher.

They are also taught to be meticulous in Bein Adam L’Chavero matters (interpersonal relationships). Which is why they have a Bikur Cholim society of world renown.  They visit hospitalized Jews of all denominations and Hashkafos. They bring home made food for patients and even family members so that they can spend more time with their sick loved ones. They do not discriminate. They treat all Jews the same as they do their own. They are the nicest people!

So how one may ask can deeply religious Jews who have such a fine reputation in helping fellow Jews be such crooks?

Well, for one thing, every sect has their criminal element. A lot of people are ‘surface Jews’. By that I mean that their exterior appearance is that of a pious Jew. But underneath the beard and Kapote lives a crook who will do anything they can get away with for personal gain. But I think there is more to it than that.

There is clearly a disdain for ‘Goyim’ whom they generally see as anti-Semites to be taken advantage of. In the minds of many, cheating the government is therefore justified. They are stealing money from antisemites who deserve no better. Esav Sonei L’Yaakov. ‘The Goyim HATE us!’  Some Satmar Chasidim - like the ones caught in a major fraud - take this to the next level.

Of course they won’t do it openly. But they will do it in ways where they think they won’t get caught. They figure no one gets hurt when stealing from the government and everyone does it anyway. Doesn’t everyone under-report income when filing tax returns?

That attitude is buttressed by a long history of European antisemitism that they believe continues here. The Goyim hate us here just like they did in Europe. Even though there aren’t the pogroms here - the hatred remains.

Unfortunately there are many Jews that learned this attitude from parents, grandparents, and great grandparents who actually lived through vicious antisemitic pogroms in Europe. By living in closed isolated communities like Kiryas Joel they are denied any real contact with the outside world. They have no way of judging their fellow non Jewish man. To the extent that some of them do come in contact with non Jews in commerce or the business world, it is all business. Social interaction is avoided or minimized. It is no small wonder that old prejudices carried over from Europe transmitted to them by their parents remains unchallenged by reality.

Of course most Satmar Chasidim don’t rip-off Medicaid or other government programs. But for those that do, there are enough of them that it seems like a never ending parade of religious looking Jews  getting caught with their hands in the till. There are so many ‘religious’ Jews in prisons, that a Sefer of practical Halacha was written for them entitled Assurei HaMelech (Prisoners of the King).

There is another factor that plays into this. Satmar Chasidim are deliberately denied an education that would enable them to get good jobs. Even though they are encouraged to work rather than to stay in Kollel, they are not given the tools needed to sustain their very large families. 

How to survive? Among other things (like free loan societies) they are taught to ‘game the system’. They take advantage of every government welfare program available. So in essence while they are encouraged to work, they are encouraged to supplement their meager incomes with government charity. Most of them are poor enough to do it legally.

This practice, however, lends itself to tremendous abuse. Once you get used to income from a government welfare program, you come to rely on it. So if you increase your income beyond the threshold of eligibility it is all to easy to simply not report it. 

Now I’m sure none of them are getting rich over this. They need the money to survive. With their large families and meager jobs, they rationalize that they have no choice but to rely on government funds even if they have to cheat ‘a little bit’ to get them. A slight increase putting them beyond eligibility will not sustain their families without the help of the government subsidy they are used to getting. But the slippery slope of going from the legal to the illegal is an all too easy one to slide down - and has all too often led to major crimes of fraud. As is once again the case with the above mentioned Satmar crooks. 

I actually feel bad for the Chasidim of Kiryas Joel. They have been sold a ‘bill of goods’ by their leadership. I find the idea of using government welfare as a means of income to be reprehensible even if they are technically eligible for it - if they can make a living more honorably. Which in many cases could be achieved through a better education.  

But their leadership remains firm. They believe that avoiding a secular education enhances their Yiddishkeit. Secular studies typically found in most elementary schools are seen as unimportant compared to their religious studies. Leaving them unable to pursue any knid of higher education. Which is OK with them since the influences in college (even one like YU or Touro) are so terrible that they are better off being poor. Taking money from the government will not hurt their Yiddishkeit as much as going to college would.

The problem with that is that by keeping their people poor they are hurting them in ways that undermine the very thing want to achieve: perpetuating their holy way of life. Poverty is a major cause of family dysfunction. Which in turn is a major cause of children abandoning observance. 

I do not see things changing. Which means we are likely to see more things like this in the future. There will always be unscrupulous Jews that think of themselves as holy and see cheating the government as a Mitzvah. And believe they can figure out ways to outsmart the government so they won’t get caught. But they will. They always do. Which means perpetuating a major Chilul HaShem.  

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

An Obama Critic Gone Mad

President Obama seen here with Prime Minister Netanyahu
Here is yet another disappointment from the Obama administration. From the Jewish Press
The Obama administration has clearly stated it will not enforce the anti-boycott language of the Trade Bill it signed, which extends protection to the disputed territories. 
I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in the President. Even though I did not vote for him, I never thought he would take these kinds of actions. I realize that US policy opposes settlement activity in the West bank. But to go so far as to tacitly endorse the actions of a group that is committed to Israel’s destruction goes too far.  Especially when a document the President just signed makes it very clear that Israeli products from the West Bank will not be boycotted.

Contrast that with what the State of Illinois (a 'blue' state) just did. In a unanimous vote by both the Illinois House and the Senate, a bill was passed that forbids the state from doing business with any company that the honors the BDS boycott of Israel in any way.  

I still maintain that the President is not anti Israel. He is just misguided, perhaps blinded by his desire to force a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians in the form of a two state solution. Such policies have caused some people to ridicule the President for having said that he is the closest thing to a Jew to have ever occupied the White House. But that isn’t fair. He believes he is for the following reasons. He has chosen 2 Jews to serve on the Supreme Court, had a Jewish campaign manager, a Jewish Chief of staff, and chosen an Orthodox Jewish Secretary of the Treasury. And he is pro Israel. Which is demonstrated by the unprecedented level of financial support (as in 'Iron Dome'); and by the unprecedented level of military and intelligence cooperation Israel now has with the US. He’s just wrong in how he is pursuing the noble but illusive goal of peace.

Which brings me to a post on Lazer Beams, a blog run by Rabbi Lazer Brody, a Chasid of Breslov. The only way I can describe his comments is to say that they are ridiculous in the extreme and they show him to be an irrational Obama hater.  His views ought to be exposed to the world for the drivel they are. 

His post is derogatory from the start – using Obama’s middle name ‘Hussein’ as a means to suggest he is sympathetic to Islam. He does not in fact mince words. Here is what he said about that: 
As an American who grew up with a Muslim education and orientation and who still holds the strongest affinity for Islam... 
That is distortion number 1.  Then there is this: 
(Obama) combines the power of Edom and Ishmael, who come together at the end of days in attempt to destroy Israel. This too is indicated in his name, for the gematria (numerical value) of writing Barack Hussein Obama in Hebrew, like this - בראק חוסיין אובאמה - is 502. The gematria of "Edom Ishmael", like this - אדום ישמעאל - is also 502.
Hashem is talking to us loud and clear. This year, the 239th USA Day of Independence falls on Shabbat, the 17th of Tammuz… This is the beginning of the USA's 240th year. On this very day, we will be reading the Torah's prophecy in Parshat Balak, how Amalek, Israel's arch-enemy, will become the leader of the nations. The Hebrew numerical equivalent of Amalek - עמלק - is exactly 240… 
The Jewish People, both in Israel and America, are faced with a clear choice: do you want your fake 4th of July celebrations and giving your continued homage to America, or do you yearn for Hashem's kingdom on earth and the rebuilding of His holy temple? If the Jews were punished for participating in Achashverush's celebration of his monarchy, then you certainly want to steer clear of the Amalekite celebration this Shabbat. And by the way, if you're not yet convinced what we're talking about, ארור המן, or "cursed Haman" is also gematria 502. What's the connection? 
Mr. Obama came to power because Hashem put him in power. Like Haman of old, he too has and will continue to betray Israel and the non-assimilated Jewish People… Only a Haman-Amalek president would make an official celebration of legislation that tramples G-d's will. 
I am speechless. The kind of hatred and venom being spewed by Lazer Brody at an American President is unprecedented for someone that considers himself to be a spiritual guide for Orthodox Jews. His views are disgusting, and need to be publicly repudiated and condemned. And that’s what I am doing here.

It is one thing to disagree with the President - as I do. But even if you think his policies are dangerous to Israel’s existence (which is possible) - to say that he is the reincarnation of an ancient Hitler called Haman is so wrong, that it completely delegitimizes him.

In my view, the President  is wrong in his latest policy decisions which affect Israel. He may not be the closest thing to a Jew in the White House. But he’s no Hitler. He’s is not even close to being an anti-Semite. Lazer Brody has lost any credibility he may have ever had with me. And at this point he ought to be thoroughly rejected by his followers.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What the Supreme Court Really Did

BuzzFeed LGBT
H. L. Mencken once said, "When you hear somebody say, 'This is not about money' – it's about money." And when you hear somebody say, "This is not about sex" – it's about sex.

These lines were quoted by Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers during the congressional debate over President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. The charge leveled against Clinton was that he lied under oath about his sexual relationship with White House intern, Monica Lewinski. But anyone with half a brain knew that this was all about sex and not about his denial of it under oath. No one would have cared about it otherwise.

Of course the President’s detractors most of whom were Republicans denied that. They insisted it was about Clinton perjuring himself  under oath. But we all know it wasn’t really about that. Lying was just the technicality that enabled them to impeach a President they hated. And they got their wish. Clinton was impeached. (Although he was not removed from office).

I believe the same thing is true about gay activists. Their victory in the Supreme Court was a victory for gay sex. Including the biblically prohibited form of it - male to male anal sexual intercourse.  This is not however what was being promoted publicly nor did the Supreme Court frame their decision that way. Gay activists were promoting fundamental human rights. That two people of the same sex should be able to get married under the law. Same as heterosexual couples. A right that was denied to them in many areas of the country until now. The Supreme court in a 5-4 decision characterized gay marriage as a civil right protected by the constitution.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. His rationale being that even though historically marriage between 2 people had always been between a man and a woman, times have changed. Since society now approves of gay marriage, it now becomes a protected right under the constituion.

The minority dissent written by Justice Antonin Scalia was scathing. He called the majority opinion “a threat to democracy”.  Chief Justice John Roberts said the decision had nothing to do with the constitution. (I interpret that to mean that the founding fathers who wrote the constitution certainly never had in mind to grant marriage rights to gay couples. Had they been specifically asked they would have said so. Had they anticipated any such movement in this country, they would have specifically written it into the constitution.)

This decision was met with cheers all over the country. Media pundits and personalities all hailed the decision. They saw the denial of the right of gay couples to get married as a terrible injustice. Television images were awash with reactions from gay couples some of whom were in tears about finally being given the dignity and acceptance they have so long been craving. They were given the right to live together under the sanctity of marriage. The ultimate sanction of their lifestyles.

The only dissent featured in media coverage was by politically conservative politicians and media personalities, and clerics of various religions. With respect to Orthodox Jewry, major organizations registered their protest. Including Agudah, the RCA, and the OU.

But this dissent is overwhelmingly overridden by massive public support for it. The images are clear. Everyone is happy for their gay brethren.  What was once (recently) a public rejection of gay marriage (as demonstrated  in California’s Proposition 8 in 2008 where the majority voted against gay marriage) has turned into public support for it in 2015.

How can people change their minds so quickly? At the risk of answering a question with another question, I think the answer is obvious. How can someone not be affected when they see two people that have experienced a lifetime of discrimination physically moved to tears being declared normal with full rights. What better indicator of normalcy is there than the Supreme Court granting them the right to get married? ...making it the law of the land?  

I have to admit that watching the reactions of gay people who are otherwise fine and decent human beings; people whose values are otherwise very similar to my own: was very touching. They see a future where gay married couples will not be given another thought. That their lifestyle choices will be just as legitimate as anyone else’s.

I wonder though if public opinion was influenced by what they saw on the surface and ignored what was underneath it. The truth is that what gay activists were asking for on the surface was not anything I am opposed to.  They wanted the right to live together, and have the loving companionship of another human being that happened to be of the same sex. They wanted the same rights granted to married heterosexual couples. Inheritance rights; end of life issues, were denied to people that were not married. They wanted to end discriminatory hiring practices, in housing, in social situations (like being served in restaurants) and in adoptions. The images and messages were all about these things. Things that no one should be denied because of their sexual orientation. They just want to be treated like everyone else.

Who could be against that?! Who wouldn’t shed a tear of joy when seeing good people being granted rights previously denied to them?

The problem of course is that it doesn’t end there. What gay activists really seek is legitimizing gay sex. The most common expression of which (for men) is male to male anal sex. This is never mentioned at all. It is as though it doesn’t exist. But this is precisely what is being sanctioned. The government has now added its imprimatur to the violation of God’s laws.

True, this is a secular country whose mission is to protect human rights without regard to any religion. On a humanistic level, there is no moral difference between heterosexual sex and gay sex. But is this the kind of country Americans really want to live in? Do Americans want a country that abandons biblical laws… laws that have been honored for centuries? Just because of a new spirit in this country? A new spirit based on a great public relations campaign by gay activists with humanistic values?  

I happen to believe that when biblical values are ignored civilizations fall apart. And increasingly in this country that is what’s happening. At least in the area of sexual mores. Government sanction of male to male anal sex is a huge step in that direction.

Just to be absolutely clear, I have no issue with two men living together under one roof.They can love each other and seek companionship. They should be treated with dignity. No rights should be denied to them. But I do have an issue with legitimizing a lifestyle that in the vast majority of cases includes male to male anal sex - a biblically forbidden act. Granting them the constitutional right to get married does that.

It is now the law of the land. And we have to deal with it. But we should all recognize what really happened here. Marriage is not a rights issue. It is a legitimization issue. The Supreme Court  has done away with centuries old American traditions based on the bible. Traditions valued by their parents and grandparents going all the way back to founding fathers. I think it’s important to recognize that this is what just happened. And it is equally important to make sure to teach our children that our eternal biblical values override the ever changing and fleeting values of the culture.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Fence Sitter Embraces Orthodoxy

Neilia Sherman is a woman after my own heart. Her intellectual honesty is refreshing in a world of polarizing certainties. Although she has some serious questions about Orthodoxy she nevertheless embraces it.

Writing in the Forward, she tells us that she was raised in a totally secular household. Both parents are Jewish. Although her father believes in God, he apparently does not practice Judaism in any meaningful way. Her mother leans towards atheism!

Her first experience with Orthodoxy was at age 14. She went on a retreat where she was inspired by the people, “the passion, the sense of community, the music, and intellectual discussions”. But she was dismayed by what she perceived as the “sexism, rigidity, countless rules and frightening Torah passages”.

But the positive overcame the negative. Upon her return home she wanted to keep kosher. That was denied her with a slam dunk “No!” from her mother. Which she punctuated with a pork chop dinner.

She is now conflicted she and describes herself as a fence sitter.  As a feminist, her politics and philosophy are more in line with those of the Reform Movement. But she does not relate to Reform lifestyle which lacks the sense of belonging she finds in Orthodoxy.  A sense that is aligned with her the strong identity as a Jew. A sense she has always had.  

After she got married she eventually joined a Reform synagogue. There she appreciated the focus on social justice and other of Reform’s trappings. But she missed being part of a community. Shul members had little to do with each other once services were over. Inviting someone over for a Shabbos meal on a Friday night just did not happen. The one time she tired, she was turned down because that was hockey night on TV!

As her son’s Bar Mitzvah approached she wanted more. And convinced her husband to join an Orthodox ‘outreach’ community near her home. There  she found what she was looking for and became observant.

But her intellectual honesty did not leave her alone. The problems she always had with Orthodoxy remained with her. Even though she got used to sitting behind a Mechitza, she never felt comfortable being separated from ‘the action’. She admired the other Baalei Teshuva in her community who embraced Orthdoxy without any apparent reservation. But she could not let go of her issues. And to top it all off she still remains unsure of God’s existence.

Neilia Sherman is resigned to her ‘fence sitter’ status and  is staying put in the world of Orthodoxy. And ends off with the following: 
In the end, my Torah-observant friends offer me a great feeling of security and belonging. I feel uplifted by their desire to do what is right, and inspired by their unwavering trust that God will never let us down. If I can’t believe it myself, it is comforting to be next to people who can.
As I indicated I admire this woman’s intellectual honesty. And frankly I am not sure what to say to her to get her off the fence. Perhaps there are a few things. 

Her questioning of God’s existence is a function of the fact that His existence cannot be proven. You cannot prove the spiritual by physical means. All you really have is belief. But it is not a belief without substance. There are plenty of reasons to believe that do not require empirical proof. There is a lot of evidence of God’s existence albeit not conclusive proof of it. Beliefs can thereby be as strong an indicator of existence as physical evidence can be.

With respect to her feminism, that is probably the hottest topic in the world of Orthodoxy today. One might advise her to join Open Orthodoxy where feminism is a huge influence and widely worshiped. But Open Orthodoxy will not take her out from behind  the Mechitza that separates her from ‘the action.’ 

Obviously the emotional uplift Neilia Sherman gets from Orthodoxy is worth the sacrifice of compromising her feminist values. That’s why she’s there. My hope is that she can resolve her inner conflict by reevaluating her feminism with respect to Orthodoxy. And perhaps come to the realization that her role of a woman in Judaism does not look how equal she is to a man. It is about how to best serve God. Which has more to do with what God requires of her and less to do with the equality of the sexes.

One becomes completely fulfilled as a human being; as a Jew; as either a man or a woman. That happens when one knows they are following God’s will to the best of their ability. There is an element of equality though.To the extent that each sex succeeds in their obligations to God is to the extent that they are equal in His eyes.

Whether or not she accepts my understanding of how a Jew can best serve God, thinking, intellectually honest people like Neilia Sherman are the kind of people I like. And I’m proud to have her as a member of the tribe.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

In a Position to Know

Former Israeli Ambassador to the US,  Michael Oren
There is a lot of angst among supporters of The President about comments made by Michael Oren in his new book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide..

Michael Oren was Israel’s ambassador to the United States  during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first term in office (2009-2013). Oren is a rare breed of Israeli patriot. Raised in America where his religious upbringing was in the Conservative movement, he became so enamored with Israel that he made Aliyah. When he was asked by the Prime Minister to be his ambassador to the US, he agreed but was saddened to renounce his American citizenship, as is required by Israel law for its major public servants.  

This is usually the case with American expatriates in Israel, They all love the country of where they were raised and hate renouncing their citizenship. But as lovers of Israel and wanting to serve their new country they did so.

Michael Oren is a respected historian. And I believe that his tenure as the ambassador to the United States is seen by most observers as well executed. That was my impression, too.  

One of the things that added to his prestige was his honesty in assessing events pertaining to Israel and the people in them.  As such he received high praise in parting company with his political mentor and his party, Likud -  and joining Kulanu, a party more in line with his political philosophy. He was widely praised by Obama administration supporters for criticizing Netanyahu’s acceptance of House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address congress.  And then later - criticizing him again for the way he conducted his political campaign during the last election.

I therefore don’t believe Oren’s integrity can be challenged. But, challenged it is because of what he revealed about Obama’s change of America’s longstanding policy with respect to its relationship with Israel. A revelation he saw ‘up close and personal’. One that should make Netanyahu’s criticism of Obama more understandable if not totally acceptable – even to his Netanyahu’s critics.

First it should be made clear that Oren did not accuse Obama of hating Israel. He actually said the opposite and blames his changed policies with Israel on his view that his new policy will result in peace. It should also not be lost on anyone that it was the President that pushed for and got funding for Israel’s ’Iron Dome’  protection system.  And it was Obama that increased military cooperation and intelligence sharing between the two countries. There should be no mistake about that. Nor should that be underestimated and under appreciated.

What Oren is saying is that Obama’s the negative policy shift with respect to Israel outweighs the aforementioned benefits.

The current relationship between the two countries is not Netanyahu’s fault, says Oren. The fault lies almost exclusively with the President. Netanyahu was just reacting to that. From the very beginning Obama seemed to turn away from Israel and seek to improve relationships with Arab nations. Not that there was anything wrong with that. But the way it was done was wrong. It was done without consultation with America’s closest ally in the Middle East. Israel was completely snubbed early in his Presidency when he chose to ignore her entirely on a speaking tour to major Arab states. Netanyahu had nothing to do with that decision. That was the first Obama snub… not of Netanyahu, but of Israel.

An important change – which Oren believes to be of fundamental importance – is that Israel was not consulted when the United States went on a mission that would have great – even existential significance to her: negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

Again, this ‘snub’ had nothing to do with Netanyahu. The President chose to ignore Israel and had no input from them despite what the President must have known was an issue of great concern to them. Seven months of secret negotiations ensued without Israel’s knowledge.

Another thing the Obama administration did that dismayed Israel was in how he pursued the so-called peace process. He put immense pressure on Israel to grant concessions to the Palestinians without asking a single concession of them. It was always Israel that was criticized about actions it took that Obama saw as counter to the peace process (like building in the settlements) without ever criticizing the Palestinians about anything.  He surely did this to increase his credibility among the Arab States.

What many people forget is that under an agreement made with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon  the Bush administration agreed that major settlement blocs would be part of Israel in any future agreement. And yet Obama insisted on a total freeze on construction in those settlements. Obama also chose to ignore Israel’s numerous peace offers to the Palestinians which they rejected.

The fear now is that the Obama administration will no longer veto anti Israel resolutions at the UN. That would put Israel into a position where it could be deemed an outlaw state with sanctions being against it being honored by the entire world.

Those who say that this is all about a personality clash between the two leaders, are not reading this correctly. It isn’t about personalities. It is about policies. The two leaders have different visions of how to go forward.

Predictably, Oren is now being discredited for parting from the conventional wisdom that blames Netanyahu for the deteriorating relationship between our two countries. But one has to be consistent. One cannot say he has credibility when they like what he says and then say he doesn’t when they don’t. And all the criticism coming out now reflects exactly that, in my view.

I believe Oren. He was there. His critics were not. I trust him. He is in a far better position to know the truth than all of his critics.

I don’t know how this will all play out during the rest of the President’s tenure. Nor do I know what the next occupant of the White House will do. But for the moment, I do not like what I see. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Jury is in - JONAH is out!

Chaim Levin
I was never a fan of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing). Even as I believe they had good intentions - if ill conceived methods. JONAH is a New Jersey based organization that offers therapy claiming it can change a homosexual’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. As I have said in the past, I believe that in cases where they have been successful, it was not with actual homosexuals but with either bisexuals or those who were confused about their sexual orientation.

I don’t know whether sexual orientation is caused by nature or nurture. But I’m pretty sure that whichever the case may be, once ingrained, it is highly unlikely if not impossible to change which sex you are exclusively attracted to: same or opposite.

I became more opposed to them after reading an account of their ‘therapy’. Chaim Levin described it as one of the most humiliating experiences in his life.

I understand why a gay man or woman might want to undergo such therapy. Even in the age of acceptance, they are still shunned by significant numbers of people. And if a gay man is an Orthodox Jew, he realizes that acting on his inclinations is Halachicly forbidden. There’s  lots of motivation in that. But the results of JONAH’s therapy for many of its clients was - failure. Their orientation did not change at all.

A lawsuit was filed against JONAH by some of those former clients. Yesterday the jury handed down a verdict. From the Forward
In a first-of-its-kind decision, the jury awarded $72,000 to several mostly Jewish victims who said Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing and co-founder Arthur Goldberg made bogus promises that they could ‘cure’ gays… The jury determined that JONAH violated New Jersey’s consumer fraud law by marketing homosexuality as a mental illness and by claiming that their conversion therapy services could successfully turn a gay person straight – and that they had done so many times before. 
I am happy for the litigants. It is very likely that JONAH will be shut down. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has already signed into a law a ban against conversion therapy organizations like JONAH for clients under the age of 18. That is a good thing. 

But there is a part of me that says that there may actually be a place for such clinics – if handled by professionals. Because there are bisexuals that can be treated to seek only heterosexual partners – thus avoiding the sin of male to male anal sex that is so common among gay men.  

There are also those that are confused about their sexual orientation – having perhaps experimented with gay sex as a teenager. I believe that clinic should be allowed to practice therapy for those people. Why deny them the right to seek a program designed to help them achieve what they want? Provided – as I said – that the people running those programs are mental health professionals trained to do so. And who realize that actual homosexuals will likely not be changed.  And make that clear their clients.

All of this said, I am dismayed that we are living in a society – a world – that is determined to normalize gay behavior. This event is yet another cog in that wheel. Mainstream media personalities of all types are sending a message to the public. Which says that gay behavior should not be seen in any kind of negative light. As though they want to write that prohibition out of the bible.  That is a problem for me. The gay sexual act of male to male anal intercourse is forbidden by the Torah. No matter how many people want to now ignore that fact. If you believe in the bible, you must believe in that.

I have spilled a lot of virtual ink sympathizing with gay people who feel they are being discriminated against. I have publicly condemned that kind of discrimination. Many times. Gay people have the right to be treated with the same dignity as straight people. Being gay is not a sin. It is only male to male anal sex that is. 

But treating a gay lifestyle as normal means normalizing that sin. Which is why I am for example opposed to gay marriage. And yet as the influence of media personalities grows, so too does the abandonment of the biblical commandment against gay sex. 

The Supreme Court has just taken another step in that direction. They have ruled in a 5-4 decision that permitting gay marriage should be the law of the land. States prohibiting it would be denying their civil rights - making them guilty of illegal discrimination. States will also be required to recognize the marriage of gay couples married in other states.

This is not a good thing in my view. As I have said many times, there is a difference between treating human beings with dignity regardless of their sexual orientation – and normalizing their lifestyles.  I enthusiastically support the former, and I am absolutely opposed to the latter. In my view any bible believing individual ought to feel the same way.