Thursday, September 03, 2015

Sadly, the Chains Remain

I cannot imagine the pain of a woman permanently chained to a man that physically or mentally abused her. And yet that seems to be what these women are forced into if their husbands refuse to give them a Jewish divorce known as a Get.  In many cases these are women that went the extra mile – giving the marriage a chance even though their husbands continued to abuse them. Aside from the stigma of divorce and the difficulty in getting remarried, there was also the children. 

Good mothers will sacrifice a lot for their children trying to keep the marriage together – even with the occasional physical beating they might receive from an abusive husband. But after a while these battered women end up leaving their husbands and realizing that an environment where abuse is tolerated is a terrible way to raise children.

The abuse does not end there. In far too many cases these husbands do not let go. The more the wife keeps insisting on it, the less likely they are to grant them a Get so that these women can put their lives back together, get remarried and lead a normal life. We call these husbands recalcitrant.

As I understand it, most of the time the reasons are about money or custody of the children. They will hold their wives hostage to their demands refusing to release them from the bonds of marriage. Which prevents them from marrying another man.  

A man that has sexual relations with a woman married to another man (which she still is without a Get) is a capital crime. And any children resulting from that are considered Mamzerim. Mamzerim and any subsequent children they may (one way or another) have are considered Mamzerim too - and are forever forbidden to marry a Jewish or non Jewish women. They can only marry other Mamzerim.


Halalcha does not allow a woman to give a Get to a man. A man must give it willingly to his wife. If he is not willing she can do nothing about it. This presents tremendous leverage to a husband. He can technically withhold the Get until his demands are met. And his wife must remain single (technically married to him) for the rest of his life.

As bad as that is, there are some men that refuse to give a Get out of pure revenge. Revenge at their wives for daring to leave them. The abuse them continues. Only this time it is mental abuse.

This has created one of the most difficult problem in all of Judaism. Looking at it objectively, it seems to be one of the most unfair Halalchos ever derives out of the Torah. But that is the way it is.

There has been many novel attempts to resolve this issue over the centuries. And in most cases thye failed miserably to do so.

 A few decades ago, the well intentioned Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman tried to set up a court for this purpose and began ‘freeing’ a lot of ‘chained women’.  His basis for doing so was a Halachic loophole found in the Gemarah that that annuls a marriage obviatint the need for a Get. That Gemarah teaches that when a physical defect is hidden from a woman, discovers it after the marriage and tells the court that she would have never agreed to marry this man had she know about his defect, the rabbis can annul the marriage as though it never happened. Considering it a Kedushei Taus – a marriage made in error. Rabbi Rackman said that the lack of a knowledge that a husband was an abuser amounts to the same thing. A defect that – had she known about it – she would have never consented to marry him.

While that seems to be a rational extrapolation of the idea of Kedusehi Taus, it was not accepted by any legitiamate Posek (Halachic authority). Including  the preeminent Modern Orthodox Posek of the day, Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik. The problem was that the Gemarah never said the abuse was considered in the same category as a physical defect. In the Talmuidc era, Tav L’Mesiv Tandu MiShenisarmelu  (A woman would rather stay in a bad marriage than to live alone) applied. And this cannot be changed in our day - even if that is no longer the case.

Some of those women he freed got married. And their children are Mamzerim. (While there might be loopholes about their actual status in Halacha – that is beyond the scope of this post.) The point is that a woman is not really freed when the vast majority of Poskim disagree with the legitimacy of the method being used to free her.

We now have come upon a similar circumstances. The International Beit Din (IBD), was set up by Rabbi Simcha Krauss for purposes of freeing chained women. Rabbi Krauss  is not Modern Orthodoxand widely respected. He had some pretty mainstream rabbis joining him. Like Yeshiva University Mashgiach, Rabbi Yosef Blau, a man I have a tremendous amount of respect for.

They have found other loopholes to use for these women. (Which I have discussed elsewhere and are also beyond the scope of this post.) Rabbi Kruass claimed tacit approval by Rav Zalman Nechmeia Goldberg, a highly respected Posek in Israel.

 Alas, it turns out that Rav Goldberg never gave his approval for this Beis Din and actually condemned it. Rabbi  Krauss based his claim on the reasoning Rav Goldber gave in another  particular case.  Which was not a Pask. And certainly not meant as a blanket approval a Beis Din to use such loopholes.

It also now appears that this Beis Din is using the same discredited loophole that used by Rabbi Rackman’s court. From The Jewish Week
After nine hours of testimony and a six-page document explaining their decision, the three-member IBD ruled to annul her marriage on the Talmudic principle that the woman never would have married her husband if she had known he would act in an abusive fashion during the marriage. 
For me the use of a discredited loophole casts aspersions on the validity of this Beis Din zand all the divorces given by it. Not that my view on this Beis Din matters all that much - But I am not the only one that feels this way. Two of the Poskim that I respect the most feel this way too. Rav Hershel Shachter and Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz have singed a letter to this effect:
Rabbi Hershel Schachter… last month penned a public letter of protest dismissing the court’s collective rulings and pronouncing Rabbi Krauss unfit to make complex decisions regarding agunot. “From start to finish, this is a mistake,” Rabbi Schachter wrote in a three-paragraph letter... The letter, written in Hebrew, says that only “great scholars of the generation” should be dealing with these sensitive matters. Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, head of the Beit Din of America,  (the largest rabbinical court), and three other prominent rabbis also signed the letter. 
Rabbi Blau has been convinced to resign from that Beis Din, as have other distinguished rabbis that have since joined it.

Rabbi Shmuel  Goldin, past president of the RCA put it very well: 
“The court is not doing a favor for these women if it issues a solution that won’t be acceptable to a large population of Orthodox rabbis…” “This isn’t a democracy, it’s a halachic process,” said Rabbi Goldin. “The power to make decisions has always been in the hands of the few who spend their lives steeped in its wells.” 
This is true. No matter how much clamor the public has for change, that cannot be the basis for it. The Halachic process doesn’t work that way. Which brings us all back to square one.  The situation for chained women has not changed. The problems persist and are perhaps getting worse as divorces in Orhtodxy have increased in our day. And increases the chances of utilizing violent and illegal means to force a husband to grant a divorce – a questionably valid technique in any case.

But a bad solution is worse than no solution at all. If chained women use a court whose legitimacy has been so widely and publically challenged their subsequent marriages and resulting children will be too.  And as heartbreaking as it is for these women, it will be even more heartbreaking if they use this court.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Teaching Hate to Children

Satmar Chasidim in the Stamford Hill section of London
What will it take? How long can we stick our collective heads in the sand while a major and perhaps fastest growing demographic in all of Jewry continues along a path of extreme hatred of the ‘Goy’?! A path that can only be described as a major desecration of God’s name. A path that ignores the Torah’s admonition to see all of mankind created in God’s image. A path that can only bring horror upon horror on the Jewish people if that attitude were God forbid seen by the world as the true Jewish one!

I have tried. I have truly tried to see Satmar in a more positive light. As many people know, they are personally very warm and gracious among themselves and to fellow Jews outside of their community. They have great family values and are meticulous about ritual observances. Their Chesed (kindnesses) to fellow Jews is unmatched. That is reflected in their Bikur Cholim society. Which provides a major service to any hospitalized Jew of any - or even no - denomination. Tremendous amounts of time and effort are expended by them in doing so. Which they do lovingly. There are not too many other groups can make those claims.

But any admiration I would normally have for this kind of dedication and commitment is shattered by what they teach their young. When it comes to the ‘Goy’ (a term referring to a non Jew - usually used pejoratively) they fail miserably.

Not only do they fail, they seem to fail on purpose. As though it is a Mitzvah to make sure Jews look bad in the eyes of the world! I don’t know how they can think that their attitude is what God wants of them. But apparently they do. They must - if they can actually do what they  are doing in London. From the Independent
British three-year-olds have been told "the non-Jews" are “evil” in a Kindergarten worksheet handed out at ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools in north London, it can be revealed.
Documents seen by The Independent show children are taught about the horrors of the Holocaust when they are still in kindergarten at the Beis Rochel boys’ school in north London.
The document refers to Nazis only as “goyim” – a term for non-Jews some people argue is offensive…
"It's not uncommon to be taught non-Jewish people are evil in ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. It is part of the prayers, teaching, their whole ethos,” (a former teacher at their schools) said. 
The Nazis were just Goyim?! All Goyim are the same?! Any Goy given the opportunity would do to us what the Nazis did to us?! This is what they teach their children from age 3?!

Although this story is about Satmar in London, I have to believe they are not rogue. I have to believe that this document reflects a sanctioned component of a Satmar education. Which probably goes something like this:  ‘All Goyim are evil’. ‘But don’t tell them that’. ‘Let’s make sure our children realize this ‘truth’ and keep it to ourselves’. ‘So that we can pretend we like them, have friendly relations with them’.  ‘And milk the system in order to better our lives through government assistance programs’.  

They are actually quite good at this. The loyalty they have to their leadership allows their leaders to tell them who to vote for in an election. They then extract promises from political candidates in exchange for their block vote.  When they get elected, they hold them to their promises with an implied threat of voting for someone else in the next election if they don’t. What a cynical approach this great country!

I know they are fellow Jews.  I also know that they are generally good people when it comes to fellow Jews.  But in my view all the good they do is ruined by what they teach their children about the ‘Goy’.  

I understand why they feel this way. I’ve explained this all before. They carry over to this country a hatred of the ‘Goy’ based on centuries of persecution and pogroms by governments and indigenous populations in Europe. A hatred that culminated with the Holocaust!

Upon immigrating to the US post Holocaust, they brought that hatred with them. They see no difference between the ‘Goy’ in Europe and the ‘Goy’ here. They are all potential Nazis. Given the chance the American ‘Goy’ would do the same thing to us! And their insular isolationist ways assures their perpetuation of this attitude – starting at age 3!

I find it extremely difficult to see them in anything but a negative light – even with all their vaunted Chesed. The harm they do to the Jewish people by spreading such hatred is incalculable. 

Isn’t time we let them know what we think about this? They may not listen to me. I am not anywhere on their radar screen. Not even close. But if the entire rest of the Orthodox Jewry - all segments including other Charedim - would reject them for doing this, and let it be known to the world that their views do not reflect the views of mainstream Orthodoxy maybe - just maybe - it will make an impression. And maybe they will someday realize just how wrong they are and change the hatred they teach their children.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Is Objectifying Women Human Nature?

‘I will only date girls that are a size 2.’ This comment was made by a young man I know over 20 years ago. He got his wish. He married a lovely young woman who is very thin. And ‘they live happily ever after.’ This may sound like a fairy tale. But it is a true story. He is a happily married man with many children and is currently a Charedi Rosh HaYeshiva in Israel.

I’ve mentioned this story before. I mention it again in light of a very insightful article by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt in Ha’aretz. The truth of the matter is (whether we admit it or not) when dating, women are seen as objects first and as people second. This is true across the board. Religious Jew or otherwise. No matter how much any segment denies it. Even Charedim as the above anecdote shows.

Lest anyone say this is an exception, I would argue that this is the rule. (Which of course does have many exceptions – but exceptions they are.) How do I know this? Mrs. Chizhik-Goldschmidt articulates quite well why this is so obviously true. That every man wants to marry a beautiful woman is obvious in the general culture. Those of us who participate in it already know that. We are affected by it.

But what about the highly insular Charedi world? (For purposes of this post – I am excluding Chasidim whose dating methods are radically different than in the Yeshiva world.) One need only look at how Shiduchim are processed in that world and one can easily see just how important looks are to a man. Recall how a few years ago in a Jewish Press article one Shadchan even suggested that among other physical attributes like weight loss, using makeup, and wearing attractive clothing - plastic surgery should be considered!

Until recently Mrs. Chizhik-Goldschmidt saw only the world of Shiduchim from the perspective of a Shidduch prospect. Now she offers us a glimpse of it from the perspective of a Shadchan. Something in which she recently has become involved after marrying her husband who is a rabbi. It opened her eyes. Here is a key excerpt from her article: 
It is for her that girls fuss when preparing for a wedding -- plastic surgery, hair blown out, manicures, expensive dresses, high heels (within some boundaries of modesty, surely) -- not so much for the men, no, the young single men will barely get a glimpse of the young single women at these weddings with separate seating. No, this whole ritual is done for the married women -- for the mere hope that one wigged lady sees her, at the sushi station perhaps, walks over and with a swish of her wand, says, “My God, you’re gorgeous, I know someone perfect for you. From a well-to-do family, too.” 
So not only do men see women this way. Women see themselves this way. They understand that men see them as objects and seek first in a woman – her physical beauty. Everything else comes after that. Even in the Charedi world.

There is really nothing new in all of this. Although it bears repeating in light of the ongoing so called Shidduch crisis. In the Charedi world - age 25 makes a woman nearly un-dateble. There are a lot of 25 year old women that are single and not dating at all. It should therefore come as no surprise that there is so much anxiety about this – even calling it a crisis. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this post. But that this is a fact is indisputable.

There is a more important point to be made here made by Mrs. Chizhik-Goldschmidt. Which is the following. The claim that modesty is the reason why women should be erased in the public square is a huge joke. ‘Joke’ is her word. Not mine. But she is absolutely correct.  For a woman who is dating, it is all about making herself physically appealing to men. It is about getting them to desire them as a mate by making themselves attractive.  Instead of men avoiding gazing at women, they actively seek it out.  Physical beauty comes first. Modesty hardly enters into the picture - as all of the evidence brought up in this article illustrates. The expression extolling a woman’s inner beauty - Kol K’vuda Bas Melech P’nima is hardly what a man dating a woman looks at.

One might be tempted to explain that when it comes to Shiduchim we ‘look the other way’in this regard. But it makes a mockery of the concept when it is so easily suspended. Either modesty is a virtue or it isn’t.

One might also be tempted to say that the very fact that there is such an emphasis on the physical beauty of a woman when dating is proof that women do need to be hidden from the public eye as much as possible.

Whether it is human nature - or a learned and ingrained response for men to objectify women, it is grossly unfair and demeaning to erase them from the public square as a means of dealing with the problem. We need instead to focus our attention on the inner person and not the externals – even if human nature tends us towards the opposite.

It is our duty to learn how to be civilized and to control our thoughts. It is certainly not the solution to hide women from our sight in every way we can. That is cruel. And it is even counterproductive. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" is not just a cliché.

As in all things, there has to be a happy medium. It is incumbent upon men to learn how to control their thoughts when encountering women that they might be attracted to (or to their pictures).  And it is incumbent upon women to contribute to this effort by dressing in ways which are not provocative. One can be attractive without being attracting. That is what Tznius in clothing is all about.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Assuring the Continuity of the Jewish People

Progressive Rabbi Michael Lerner
There are 3 articles in the Forward that deal with the rising power of Orthodox Jews, their adherence to traditional values and their similarities to Evangelical Christians.

The first article points out Orthodox similarities to Evangelicals in the sense that both our values are based on biblical values. We are in fact a lot closer to them ideologically than we are to our non Orthodox brethern. Our respective religions honor the same things and hold disdain for others. Although not exact, our values with respect to morality are similar. We both for example see a deterioration of sexual mores in this country. And we both see homosexual sex as sinful and therefore to be avoided.  Non Orthodox progressive or liberal Jews tend to see the biblical views on these subjects as archaic and not in concert with modern concepts of equality and justice.

Both groups tend to see Israel as a biblical right granted by God to the Jews - rather than the progressive or liberal view that it is some sort of modern day miracle whose existence was created for refugees of the Holocaust.

Many Orthodox Jews tend to vote Republican seeing their conservative values more in line with religious values. There are more similarities but I think this illustrates the point.

None of this is news to me. I have long ago noticed these similarities. It is one reason (among others) that Evangelical Christians have had such an affinity for us. We are natural allies in battling societal changes that conflict with the bible.

That said, clearly the biggest difference is theological. They believe in the divinity of Jesus. We don’t. But as one of the articles points out - the common values we share in the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people overshadow that very significant difference. We both battle a common enemy: the trend in western culture to no longer see biblical values as relevant.

In a subsequent editorial on the subject, Forward editor Jane Eisner laments the fact that the progressive Judaism of which she is an adherent  is in danger. Here is how she puts it:
(S)heer demographics should awaken us to the likelihood that fundamentalist Judaism will assume a larger share of the American community, as it has in Israel. Orthodox Jews marry earlier, have more children, raise their children Jewishly and keep them in the fold, and are more connected to their faith than their non-Orthodox counterparts are. These behaviors are amplified among the Haredim; even their more qualified attachment to Israel is still stronger than that among Jews in liberal denominations...
From the time it was published nearly two years ago, Pew’s research has highlighted the difficult challenge facing those who believe in a tolerant, egalitarian, vibrant and sustainable Jewish future.
It is unfortunate the fundamentalism has taken on such negative overtones. I suppose that’s because of Fundamentalist Islam whose ideology leads them to terrorism in various forms. It is also extremism in our own ranks (like trying to erase women from the public square) which has given fundamental beliefs a bad name.

But I would suggest that at its core fundamentalism is the belief that what the bible tells us is true. That its truths are eternal and are not to be tampered with. Even to fit the times.  In that sense I too am a fundamentalist – even while I rail against those who abuse fundamental beliefs as an excuse for extremism.

This is where Mordechai Lightstone comes in.  He puts  it all into proper perspective - rightly castigating Ms. Eisner for lamenting the fact that religious Jews are a danger to progressive Judaism. Here is how he puts it:

I struggle, earnestly, to see the problem with these findings, how the idea that a religious person would find religion important in his or her life and attend religious services, could somehow represent a schism in American Jewry.
If anything, the surprise and the danger here is that all Jews didn’t find these things more important. Shouldn’t we see a connection to our heritage as a positive thing? Wouldn’t we want Jews of any background or level of affiliation to also value our rich heritage and to consider Judaism as something central to his or her life?  …We shouldn’t rue signs of commitment to Judaism as an alliance with evangelical Christians, rather work to encourage all Jews to stake their claim in the heritage of Israel.

He is right of course on so many levels. When one’s Judaism is based mostly on the ideals of liberalism it weakens the connection to their heritage. Judaism is not liberal or progressive... or even conservative. Judaism is about the Torah and its values.

It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with being a political progressive, a liberal, or a conservative. One can debate the merits of each. It is about knowing what the Torah wants and putting that first. When the values of the Torah are seen as archaic and irrelevant -and a Jew replaces Torah values with political or societal values, their Judaism is lost.

What about the insularity of religious Jews? It seems the more religious a Jew is the more insular he is. Is that a positive value? Some would say yes - based on the fact that the more insular one is, the less likely they will be to be corrupted by external values – many of which are the antithesis of Torah values.

But as I have said many times - on a societal level, such insularity is harmful as it tends to create an elitism which ends up looking down at the people on the outside and their culture.  That ‘outside’ might even include other Orthodox Jews. And that can and sometimes does gives rise to a false sense of entitlement and even superiority with which they sometimes justify fraudulent activity.  

This is one reason I am a Centrist. Centrists are not insular. We participate in the culture. We have a far more positive view of our fellow non Jewish citizens. Nor are we monolithic politically. Although there are an increasing number of Orthodox Jews that vote Republican, there are plenty of Orthodox Jews that hold liberal values dear. Most of them can be found in the Modern Orthodox camp (although decreasingly so).

I for one am neither a liberal or conservative. I tend to judge every issue independently to see which side of the political aisle my religious views takes me. I may be liberal in some areas (I am pro choice) and conservative in others (I am opposed to gay marriage).

One thing is certain. Defining ones Judaism based strictly on progressive or liberal values is a sure prescription for failure.  If anything has proven just how much of a failure that is, it is the demise of the Conservative Movement that primarily preaches progressive values even as it practically ignores any semblance of religious practice (while nonetheless claiming to be Halachic).

It is our biblically defined religious values that define us as Jews.  If we happen to share many of those values with Evangelical Christians – it is because they too define themselves by the religious values of the bible.  That should be no surprise. As Mordechai Lightstone notes, religious belief and practice are positive things that all Jews should seek. They are probably the only things that can assure the continuity of the Jewish people. Just as they have till now.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Future of Charedi Leadership Requires Mada

Rav Aharon Lopianksky
19th century French thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville has something to add to Charedi discourse. As does French philosopher and mathematician Nicolas de Condorcet , and many other non Jewish thinkers. One might ask, do non Jewish thinkers have any relevance to the Charedi world? 

As reported by Jonathan Rosenblum in his weekly column in Mishpacha Magazine, the answer is yes. Jonathan described a week long conference he attended in Long Island. The 2nd of its kind. It was sponsored by the politically conservative Tikvah Fund whose mission consists of defending the traditional family; stressing national sovereignty and a strong national defense;  and favoring a strong free market economy.

Among those who participated in exchanging ideas with non Jewish politically conservative thinkers is the Rosh HaYeshiva of a Charedi Yeshiva (the Yeshiva of greater Washington) R’ Aharon Lopiansky. The largest contingency of attendees was from Lakewood (followed by attendees from Ner Israel and Israel). Only a handful of these participants had any education beyond high school.

Jonathan points out that the future of Jewish leadership depends on the kind of secular knowledge imparted there. This is an astonishing admission from someone who clearly identifies himself as Charedi and lives in Israel.

What he is really saying is that Torah knowledge alone is not enough to prepare people for government leadership in our day. No matter how great that knowledge is - one needs to learn certain secular disciplines in our day in order to lead.

Jonathan posits that as the Charedi population continues to increase in Israel they may eventually be called upon to lead an entire nation. As it stands now, the only Charedim qualified to even consider a leadership role are Baalei Teshuvu who actually had that kind of education prior to their becoming observant in the Charedi world. No one – especially in Israel – has anywhere near that kind of secular education – or indeed any secular education at all.

Of course Jonathan is himself a Baal Teshuva, having been educated in 2 of the finest universities in the world, the University of Chicago and Yale. That’s why have can talk about de Tocqueville and de Condorcet with such ease.

One may be tempted to say that the views Jonathan espouses in this essay and in previous ones are not mainstream Charedi – and that his views have been ‘tainted’ by his exposure to those schools and his overall past education –both formal and informal.  But Rabbi Lopiansky views had no such ‘tainting’. He was born and raised in the Charedi world and is the son in law of Rav Beinish Finkel, the Rosh HaYeshiva of Mir before R’ Beinish’s other son in law, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ZTL took over.

That the most of the participants were from Lakewood tells you something. There is an acknowledgement that both Torah and Mada are important, at least in terms of the future leadership of the Jewish people.

Jonathan tells us that 3 of the participants were from Israel. I have to assume that they are actually Americans that were educated here but now live in Israel. Because most Israelis would be ill equipped to attend a conference like this having zero secular education.

So while this conference is a step in the right direction, as it pertains to Israel, there is a very long way to go.

If one has liberal leanings one might look upon at a conference espousing conservative values with disdain. But It is far more important to become educated at all in these disciplines than it is to remain completely ignorant of them.  Besides bright individuals can decide for themselves whether or not they accept the conservative arguments put forth at such a conference. Thinking people with strong religious values can decide which of the two political ideologies (liberal or conservative) supports their religious worldview. Usually it involves a little of both.

The point is that there is a realization on the part of the right – at least those that have been raised and educated in America – that this kind of education is indispensable for the future.

What about Israeli Charedim? Will they come around to this kind of thinking? I hope so, although I doubt that they currently place any value on it. Only time will tell. Articles like this one by Jonathan help. But there needs to be corresponding articles in the Hebrew editions of magazines like Mishpacha and other Charedi publications. If there are enough of those, who knows? 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Can This Really Be Daas Torah?

Rav Matisyahu Salomon, one of the signatories
Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechoffer said it best. “Whatever happened to "Rak am chacham v'navon ha'goy ha'gadol ha'zeh? - How wise and understanding this great nation is! This Pasuk from the Torah speaks of the Jewish people and how the world will see them if they follow the will of God.

Rabbi Bechoffer made this comment in response to a published Halachic ruling made by the Roshei Yeshiva of BMG (Lakewood Yeshiva). It was distributed to the heads of elementary day schools and Beis Yaakovs in that city. It states that they are forbidden by Halacha to deny entry of any student that has not been vaccinated for various childhood diseases. 

It goes on to bolster this view by claiming that vaccinations have been shown by the medical establishment to have serious medical risks and that no one should be forced to have them.  It cites a 2011 Supreme Court comment (which was probably taken out of context) to the effect that vaccines are ‘unavoidably unsafe’.  They have therefore concluded that no one has a right to vaccinate a child against their will.

They go on to say that setting school policy should be based on medical knowledge upon which only Daas Torah can speak. Not the medical establishment. As such they cite Rav Chaim Kaneivsky’s ruling that schools may not refuse children that have not been vaccinated.

I am not a medical expert. But it has been standard practice in America for decades to vaccinate children against childhood diseases.  Which has resulted in a drastic reduction of these diseases - some of which can be deadly. To the best of my knowledge it is the very same medical establishment quoted in their ‘psak’ that tell us the benefits of vaccinations far outweigh the risks.

More importantly, those children that are not vaccinated run the risk of exposing other children to the diseases they are now more likely to contract. To the best of my knowledge vaccination are not 100%  effective. They only improve the odds of not getting the disease. Which increases the risk for others getting it -  even if they have been vaccinated. Which increases the chances of it spreading. The best way to reduce the odds of any child contracting one of those diseases is if everyone is vaccinated. The only exception I would make is if a child is known to be allergic to the vaccine – making his risk of danger greater if he is vaccinated than if he isn’t. Otherwise all children should be vaccinated.

For me this is a no brainer. It is plain old fashioned common sense. The overwhelming benefits of vaccinations strongly argue in favor of requiring them for a child’s entry into a classroom full of other children.

So I truly do not understand this Psak at all. It states as part of its rationale, ‘Veshamartem  Es Nafshoseichem’  -‘ you should guard your lives’. But their interpretation of it seems to favor a more dangerous scenario for all. Far be it from me to question the Halachic wisdom of these great Roshei Yeshiva. But I have to ask: Is not the greater risk to the child and the community to not be vaccinated?

For me the answer is clear. I truly do not understand what these Roshei Yeshiva are doing, other than going against vast majority of current medical advice on this issue.

As Rabbi Eliyahu Fink put it on Rabbi Bechoffer’s Facebook page, 
Schools cannot deny enrollment to unvaccinated students.  But schools may or even MUST deny enrollment to students with Internet at home / long hair / blue shirts. So to recap, parents who risk the physical health of an entire school are cool. Parents who are merely perceived as risking spiritual wellbeing of others are not cool.
I think that says it all.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Jewish Education is the Key

Large families like this are common in the Charedi world
There are new statistics being gleaned from that now famous (infamous?) 2013 Pew survey of US Jewry. This time pertaining specifically to Orthodox Jewry. To the best of my knowledge there has thus far been only 2 quick reactions to it. One by Rabbi Avorohom Gordimer and the other by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. Both of which I feel are right on target.

Here is my own quick take on it. I’m sure there will be many others forthcoming. Some quick. And some more in depth.

This study reveals that about 2/3 of all Orthodox Jewry in America are Charedi. About 1/3 are Modern Orthodox. This should be no surprise to anyone that reads this blog. The internal growth rate of Charedim in America since the Holocaust is geometric with each successive generation – with 10 or more children per family not all that uncommon. Multiplying exponentially with each generation. Modern Orthodox Jews – while having a far greater internal growth rate than secular Jews and non Jews - do not on average come anywhere near that number. While there is attrition in both segments, even assuming those leaving the fold are equal in both segments, it isn’t to hard to see which growth rate will better compensate for that loss. As time passes on, the percentages of Charedim will grow even higher.

(Rabbi Adlerstein correctly worries about the 17% of Jews that were raised Orthodox Jews leaving the fold. Those are indeed tragic numbers. This phenomenon has been discussed here before and is beyond the scope of this post.)

One startling statistic was the lack of certainty about God’s existence. One would think the number of Charedim that have these kinds of doubts is statistically insignificant. Well that’s not true. The percentage is low at 4%. Looking at the sheer numbers, however, - if there are say 100,000 Charedi Jews in America (a random number based on my own conservative guess– no clue what the numbers actually are) that would mean that there are thousands of Charedi Jews in America that question the existence of God.  

The percentages increase dramatically in Modern Orthodoxy.  Fully 23% of Modern Orthodox Jews question God’s existence! (In terms of numbers – the difference is not as dramatic since there are only about half the amount of Modern Orthodox Jews as there are Charedim. – But still - shocking numbers in both cases as far as I am concerned.

That there are more Modern Orthodox Jews than Charedim that skip rituals is not a surprise either. That’s because of the large ‘MO-Lite’ segment I often talk about. They are observant more for social reasons than ideological ones. (Not to mention those who are Orthoprax non believers that no doubt do not practice any rituals at all when no one is looking. Why would they?). While there are Charedi-Lites as well, my guess is that the percentage of MO Jews that are Lite is greater than the percentage of Charedim that are Lite.

Not surprising is the fact that the traditional affiliation or support of Jews for the Democratic Party has virtually evaporated in Orthodox circles even while remaining relatively stable in non Orthodox ones. Most Orthodox Jews tend to be far more in line with the values espoused by the Republican Party. This can be seen in issues like gay marriage. Most Democrats and non Orthodox Jews support it. Most Republicans and Orthodox Jews don’t.

Another surprising statistic is the comparative educational levels among Jews of all denominations or unaffiliated. The winner? Modern Orthodox Jews are the most educated demographic of all of Jewry. 65% of all MO Jews have a Bachelors degree or higher. That compares with 60% of non Orthodox Jews and 38% of Charedim. That is matched by similarly surprising differences in high income. Again, the winner is MO. 37% earn $150,000 or more compared with 29% of Reform, 23% of Conservative, and 22% unaffiliated.

These are the numbers. Why this is the case is something many of us can debate. Although it isn’t too hard to see a correlation between educational levels and income. Or religious values and politically conservative ones.

But there is one thing that does stand out. It is something Rabbi Adlerstein pointed out in his review of these numbers. It is that Jewish education works. It is in my view the single biggest factor if keeping people Jewish and observant from one generation to the next. Here is the money quote from JTA
Four out of five Orthodox Jewish parents with kids at home have at least one child in yeshiva or Jewish day school, and about three-quarters of Orthodox Jewish adults (73 percent) attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva as children (81 percent among haredim, 57 percent among the modern Orthodox). By contrast, only 17 percent of other Jews went to yeshiva or Jewish day school growing up. 
One might be tempted to say that correlation does not equal cause. That’s true. But is anyone ready to tell me that smoking does not cause lung cancer? To the best of my knowledge there has been no direct causal link between smoking and lung cancer. Only a statistical one.

If you want your children and grandchildren to remain Jewish, send them to a religious day school and high school. There are no guarantees of course. But there is not a doubt in my mind that the chances of success increase dramatically when you do.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Treating Palestinians with Dignity

Israeli residents of Chevron
One thing I have noticed about human nature is that truth cannot alter the minds of people with agendas. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to persuade certain right wing Religious Zionists I know - that there is another side to the Palestinian issue. These people are often very intelligent on other matters. They can see two sides of an issue. But when it comes to this one, please do not confuse them with the facts.

I mention this in light of an article posted on a Bnei Akiva website by Liora Goldberg, a young women who is obviously very committed to Religious Zionism. Therein she describes her experience upon taking a tour of Chevron. A Palestinian tour led by a Palestinian tour guide. It opened her eyes to a reality that few people think of when they think of Palestinians. As was the case with her. She now has a totally different perspective. Which combined with her previous view makes her current view far more balanced. Perhaps we should all consider doing this next time we are in Israel

There were a couple of things she noted that – in my view - ought to make the Israeli government reconsider any Jewish residential presence in Chevron at all:
The last time I had been (to Maras HaMachpela) was with Midreshet Harova on my gap year, nearly 2 years ago… (A)n outrageously right wing man who lived in Hebron... encouraged us to dance and sing at the top of the mountain, in front of the glaring Palestinians below. A group of us stood at the side; confused, angry and horrified at what we’d been encouraged to do. To torment them. To mock the fact that there was nothing they could do about the 550 Jewish people who have settled in Hebron…
And later – this:
(A) group of French Jews came up to the Palestinian shop and began shouting at the Palestinians, provoking them. What happened next changed everything for me and will stay with me for the rest of my life. One of the French Jews picked something up from the shop and threw it at our Palestinian hosts and tour guides. Within seconds, the table had been thrown, glass strewn everywhere and they were physically fighting a metre away from me. I ran to find my dad, completely shaken and humiliated that I had seen the Jewish people start it. I had seen it with my own eyes. I could never deny it… (I)n this scenario, to the people on our tour group, they were representing the Jewish people... The pain that I felt when I saw my own people antagonise the innocent Palestinian hosts, who 5 minutes before had been discussing the necessity for us to all treat each other as human beings, was indescribable.
Unfortunately I am not surprised by any of this. Nor at their defenders. It is a very sad commentary about the inability of otherwise very idealistic people to be open minded on issues they are passionate about. I know how important settling all the land of Israel is to them. I understand the Halachic narrative they use to it. But I don’t understand the way they do it. Which comes at a very high price: the humiliation of other human beings. Human beings that are created in the image of God. And worse attacking them violently only because they are Arabs. These people live under the misguided notion that all Arabs are our enemy (unless proven otherwise) and therefore deserve to be treated that way.

I’m not saying that I would change anything with respect to how the Israeli government handles its security needs. Unfortunately there are indeed Arabs that would kill us all in a New York minute if given the chance – even if they had to die in the process. There have been too many instances of that in the past to ignore the possibility of it happening again. And they hide in plain sight –acting normal and even friendly until they put on that ‘vest’.

At the same time, we have the responsibility as fellow human beings to recognize that these security measures place a great and unfair burden on the vast majority of these people. Who would never put on a vest filled with explosives in a suicide mission.

I personally have great sympathy for what Palestinians are going through. It is certainly understandable that they complain about it so bitterly – even as we know that it is people in their own midst that are responsible for it.

Instead of taunting them, we should understand what they are going through and leave them alone. Or better yet let them know we understand. Unfortunately as I said, some people just don’t want to be confused with the facts.

(Hat tip: Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechoffer)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Knowing There’s a Problem is Not Enough

YAFFED founder, Naftuli Moster (Jewish Press)
I guess it’s relevant after all. Ezra Frielander seemed to change his mind about Naftuli Moster’s views being irrelevant. Naftuli is the former Belzer Chasid that founded YAFFED, (Young Advocates For Fair Education). YAFFED has asked New York City Schools Chancellor, Carmen Farina and 7 district superintendents to investigate the quality of secular education in 39 religious schools suspected of non compliance with the educational standards required of them.  They have agreed to investigate.

Mr. Friedlander wrote an op-ed recently claiming that Naftuli’s abandonment of his religious past disqualified him from commenting on this. "How dare he", he asks! He believed YAFFED has an ulterior motive aimed at destroying these schools - not helping them.

I responded that he was blaming the messenger instead of dealing with the problem. Which at the time he denied even existed, saying that he thought these schools actually complied with state requirements. To the extent that there was room for improvement, it should be handled in house - certainly not by the government.

To underscore this he pointed to efforts in Czarist Russia to do the same thing. Which was rebuffed by the Yeshivos of that time. They saw it as a thinly veiled attempt by Czarist Russia and the Reform Movement to destroy Yiddishkeit. That Mr. Friedlander in any way  compares New York’s educational requirements to what Czarist Russia did is ridiculous and should be rejected out of hand. It is an insult to the very ideals this country was founded upon to make any such comparisons.

But in a subsequent article in Mishpacha Magazine last week he seems to admit that there is a serious problem in those schools. Students are not being taught the basics which undermines their ability to eventually support their families.

His solution is for parents to take over that job. Claiming that college degrees are just pieces of paper that don't really help you that much in finding a good job - his solution is to return the responsibility of teaching your children how to make a living to the parents. It is after all it is their responsibility to begin with. This is true. 

But in our day that responsibility has long ago realistically transferred to the schools. They are better equipped and the teachers are professionally trained to do so. They are our agents - executing for us that responsibility. There is no way that this paradigm will be shifted back to parents in our day. Job training has become too technical for parents to do it. There is little in the way of educating our children at home that can make them productive wage earners. Children need to be taught the basic material and study skills in their schools elementary and high schools by teachers that are trained to do so. That will enable them to eventually learn a profession or trade – and thereby make a decent living wage.

How bad are these schools now? From the Jewish Press
“Due to our own upbringing, we are familiar with—and have been affected by—the severe deficiency of the education systems in the ultra-Orthodox world, particularly within Chasidic boys’ schools,” the YAFFED website states. “From elementary school through high school, we were provided with a rigorous curriculum in Judaic studies, including Tanach, Mishna, Gemara, Halacha, mussar, and chasidus. Our general studies education, however, was limited to non-existent.
“The cheders and yeshivas we attended often provided only the rudiments of English and mathematics, and, in some cases, not even that. In many of our schools, the brief period of ‘English’ instruction was spent with utter neglect for classroom decorum and discipline, which led, naturally, to a poor learning environment. Teachers and educators, thereby, reinforced the message that general, non-Judaic studies were of little relevance to our lives, or worse, an outright nuisance.
“In most of our schools, general studies education ended abruptly post-Bar Mitzvah, after which our academic curricula consisted of Judaic studies alone. Many of us, at that time, had only the English reading and math skills of third or fourth-graders. The New York State Department of Education states that non-public schools must offer classes in English, mathematics, reading, writing, music, arts, history, geography, science, health education, and physical education. Many of our elementary schools offered only a miniscule fraction of these, and most of our high schools, none at all.” 
I don’t see Mr. Friedlander disputing these facts. Only the messenger. This is a  devastating indictment of these schools. 

That’s why I completely support this investigation. These communities never had any intent to fix the problem. But  even if they had such an intent, these communities are impoverished and don’t have the means to pay for it. A good general studies program costs money. And aside from a few very wealthy entrepreneurs these communities have very little of that – relying on government welfare programs and free loan societies just to exist. How could they have any money if their education does not prepare them to make a living?!

Mr. Friedlander fears that this investigation may end up with some schools closing. In my view if a school can’t teach your children the basics (as described by YAFFED) it doesn’t deserve to be open.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that a lot of parents in those communities feel the same way – although they wouldn’t dare say so publicly.

I suppose it is a step in the right direction for Mr. Friedlander to now admit there is a serious problem. But admitting it is only half the solution. They need a full solution. How will they get the money to fund that solution? I don’t know. But I don’t think they can continue as is.

Rabbi Dovid Landesman, Zichrono L’Vracha

My son, who lives in Ramat Bet Shemesh, called me with the news on Sunday. Rabbi Dovid Landesman who also lived there, died suddenly and unexpectedly last Friday. Very sad news. Although I never personally met him, I was a fan. And I will miss him. 

Rabbi Landesman identified as Charedi and was proud of it. But he was a critical of things within his community which he felt were wrong.  My being a Centrist, he and I differed on some issues. But he and I thought alike on a great many others. Like the obligation a Jew in Israel should feel to serve in its defense forces – regardless of his Hashkafa. Even if he was Charedi.

Rabbi Landesman served proudly joining the IDF upon his making Aliyah. His sons served, too. If all Charedim thought as he did, there would be little enmity between Charedim and Dati Leumi Jews. Or even secular Jews. In fact I’ll bet a lot of Charedim might secteretly feel as he does but are afraid to change the way they live for fear of being ostracized by their peers and fiends.

Rabbi Landesman was an occasional commenter here. His comments were always full of wisdom – whether one agreed with him or not. He also wrote some original guest posts here - as well as for Cross Currents. He was indeed a man for all seasons. Telling the truth as he saw it without fear. Regardless of popular opinion.  Emes is something this blog strives for. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t. Rabbi Landesman strived for it too. It was obvious in everything he wrote. He was an Ish Emes – a man of truth.

His voice has been silenced. He is now in the Olam HaEmes. But his message will remain, having published at least 2 books (which he sent me) on Hashkafa aimed and young people: There Are No Basketball Courts in Heaven and Food for Thought: No Hechsher Required.

Rabbi Landesman was Charedi and one of my heroes. He stood up for Emes and minced no words. He will be sorely missed. Baruch Dayan HaEmes.

The following are links to some his contributions here: link link link link link