Monday, May 29, 2017

A Warped Interpretation

Illustration from JTA
I cannot believe how warped the thinking of this rabbi is. And yet that is exactly what Conservative Rabbi Adina Lewittes has done with a Midrash about the Luchos – the 2 tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written.  Now I’m sure that Rabbi Lewittes is a fine individual - an intelligent and compassionate human being with good values. But Jewish values they are not if this is how she interprets a Midrash in honor of Shavuos.

The Torah relates that when Moshe came down from Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments and saw the people reveling in their service to a golden calf, he threw down the Luchos (tablets) breaking them into pieces. From JTA, here is Rabbi Lewittes’ quote of a  Midrash that describes that event in a bit more detail: 
“Moses started to turn back, but the Elders saw him and ran after him. Moses held on to one side of the tablets, they held on to the other, but Moses was stronger. … He looked at the tablets and noticed that the writing had disappeared from them. ‘How can I give the Israelites blank tablets?’ he thought, and decided it would be better to break them instead.” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan, Ch. 2) 
Rabbi Lewittes then goes off the rails with the most incredulous interpretation of this Midrash one can imagine. Which is that God erased the writing in those Tablets because they were written in a language that His people no longer speak or understand. She then further suggests (based on her own conjecture with absolutely no connection to what happened or why) that there is no value in Torah study for its own sake.  And in what can only be described as a nod to Christian theology, she notes that observance of a perfect Torah is not achievable by an imperfect people.

In conclusion of this breathtaking leap of logic, she says that the laws written in the new Luchos were changed – disassembled from the original and reassembled so that we can better observe them. Taking this interpretation to an even more absurd extreme she says the following:
Individuals personally curate their own Jewish lives, drawing from an array of cultural, intellectual, social, political, ethnic, spiritual, sexual and gender affiliations within and beyond the Jewish community. Diverse sources of authority and inspiration abound, shaping multifaceted, multivocal Jewish expressions in the global conversation about meaning, connection and faith.
In this setting, what are we prepared to dismantle and reconfigure to help more Jews feel at home in Judaism and the Jewish community, and motivate them to stay and contribute to a shared vision of the future? 
This is pretty shocking even for a Conservative rabbi. One must remember the reason that this movement chose that name ‘Conservative’ for themselves. It was to conserve Judaism. Not change it based on modern ‘realities’. That their rabbis erred in how to achieve that conservation doesn’t mean that they intended to abandon Torah law altogether if the times demanded it. But that  is tantamount to what Rabbi Lewittes suggests based on her warped interpretation of that Midrash. 

What she also fails to mention is that God dictated to Moshe that he rewrite those Ten commandments on the second Luchos - exactly the way He (God) wrote them on the first Luchos. There was no reconfiguration of the law at all. 

If one believes that Judaism can be reconfigured based on the spirit of the times then one can abandon it all if the times demand it. In what way is this different from Reform ideology?

But I guess it should not be surprising that Rabbi Lewittes - someone that now officiates at intermarriages - has this attitude.  And she is not the only Conservative rabbi officiating at intermarriages. Despite the fact that the movement doesn’t approve of it. Yet.

I don’t see the rabbis on their Committee on Jewish Law and Standards opposing it forever.  The times – after all – demand that we do something about the high intermarriage rate. They have already proposed welcoming non Jews that are married to Jews to join their synagogues. I guess their philosophy is, ‘If you can’t lick em – join em’. That may be the easy way out. But it is not the Jewish way out. It is an ‘out’ however. One that takes them further than ever before - out of Judaism.  And it helps to explain – what to me is perhaps the most ridiculous interpretation of a Midrash I have ever seen.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Wise Guys - Not Wise Jews

Shalom Lamm at his development, Chestnut Ridge in Bloomingburg, (NYT)
In his latest article in Hamodia (republished on Cross Currents)  Rabbi Avi Shafran asks the following question: ‘Does widespread voting fraud exist?’ Although the subject of his article is unrelated to the following discussion, I found it to be somewhat ironic in light of the admission of guilt by an Orthodox Jew of committing voter fraud. 

The only thing that has somewhat of a bright spot to this sordid affair is that at least one of the people guilty of this crime, has taken ownership of it and has apologized. I am not going to discuss what his motives were for making saying he was sorry. A resident of the community where this crime took place is skeptical about his sincerity saying, ‘The fact that he apologized is insane…. Mr. Nakdimen is only sorry that he got caught.’ 

I can’t know what is in a person’s heart. But admitting guilt goes a long way towards preventing at least one person, Mr. Nakdimen, from ever doing it again. And hopefully it will act as a deterrent for others. Although other high profile cases of fraud by Orthodox Jews have failed to deter these gentleman, one can hope that others will take notice this time and think twice about breaking the law – even if in those circumstances where they don’t have the personal ethics to do so.

Kenneth Nakdimen was a partner, with Shalom Lamm in an ambitious development project in and around Bloomingburg, a village in New York. The idea was to build homes for the burgeoning population of places like Williamsburg and Monroe. The development was to be called ‘Chestnut Ridge’.

Predictably there was opposition from the local residents. The developers tried to prevent any organized opposition. Which could influence local officials to pass legislation that would prevent these developers from pursuing their plan. As elections were coming up they hatched a plan to insure that their project would go forward unhindered. From  the Times Harold-Record
In December, Lamm and Nakdimen, along with Volvy Smilowitz of Monroe, were charged with conspiracy to corrupt the electoral process, also known as voter fraud…
Federal prosecutors say they filed falsified voter registrations, paid for voter registrations and offered bribes for registrations and votes, all to swing the 2014 village election in an effort to seat a mayor and trustees who would be favorably disposed toward their project. On Thursday, Nakdimen admitted that was all true. 
Lamm and Smilowitz have pled not guilty.

Once again we have the specter of Orthodox Jews putting greed in front of ethics. Which keeps the false image of ‘the greedy Jew that will do anything for money’ alive and well. These developers stood to make millions from the sales of these homes to Chasidic seeking refuge from the crowded circumstances of places like Williamsburg – moving into the tree-lined open spaced suburbs like this new project.

I wish I could believe that these developers were acting with altruistic motives – on behalf of these Chasidim. Although it would still be illegal and unethical, one might understand fighting for the right of people to live wherever they choose by not allowing prejudices to win the day. But I tend to doubt that this was their prime motivation. Someone very wise once said, ‘Follow the money’.  The motive here was no doubt profit versus loss. They stood to make hundreds of millions upon completion of the project and stood to lose the millions they have already poured into it if prevented.

Now I have nothing against making lots of money, much less trying to avoid financial ruin. But not at the expense of flouting the law and committing fraud. There is not a doubt in my mind that they knew that what they were doing  was wrong and an egregious violation of the law. But they did it anyway foolishly thinking they would never get caught. Probably rationalizing all the way that they were doing it for their fellow Jews.

I’m not buying it. Nor do I buy their claim of innocence. I believe Mr. Nakdimen. They conspired together to do it. If I were Mr. Lamm or Mr. Smilowitz, I would change my plea to guilty. It won’t help our image much. But it might reduce the sentence they will get and the suffering their families will experience. Something they ought to consider. Because if they don’t - they will no doubt get the proverbial ‘book’ thrown at them. As have others that decided to roll the dice and plead not guilty - when they were found guilty.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Protecting the Vulnerable; Strengthening the Defenseless

Rabbi Zvi Gluck - founder of Amudim
A few weeks ago, Pope Francis met with a Charedi Rabbi by the name of Edgar Gluck and his son Rabbi Zvi Gluck. That meeting raised a few eyebrows for a number of reasons. While some of the criticism may have been justified, I was one of those who saw it as an entirely positive meeting. Pope Francis is an exceptional man and we ought to be thankful that the Bishop of Rome - a man so widely admired by so many people of all faiths all over the world - has so much respect for Judaism.

But the Pope is not the subject of this post. Rabbi Zvi Gluck is.  The Jewish Week named him one of this year’s 36 under 36. These are a group of millennials whom they describe as ‘a group uniquely dedicated to protecting the vulnerable and strengthening the defenseless’.

When I came across this article, I wondered if any of the people they chose are Orthodox. I noticed one that is: Rabbi Zvi Gluck.

This is a Charedi rabbi that turns on its head the notion that Orthodox rabbis simply don’t care about sexual abuse. That is not true and never has been. What is true however is how misguided all too many rabbis in leadership positions were and how badly they handled it.  

It was so bad that survivors of abuse felt abandoned by their own religious community. In many cases opting out of observance or worse living lives of clinical depression, substance abuse and even suicide - which all too often was a serious option for them.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone that hasn’t experienced abuse – including myself - to understand the mindset of a survivor. Only the survivor himself knows how it feels. And perhaps his immediate family (parents and siblings). The pain and emotional suffering, the stigma, the sense of abandonment can stay with a survivor for the rest of their lives. Even in those instances where a survivor somehow manages to lead a normal life, it never fully goes away, I’m told.

The religious leadership in Orthodoxy (whether Charedi, Chasidic,  or modern Orthodox)  had in the past never risen to the occasion. Ironically their attitude came (and in some cases still comes) from a sincere sense  of compassion. Not for the survivor. But for the accused. They tended to believe the denials of prominent people with good reputations over the accusations of their young victims. Treating the victims as Off the Derech (OTD), lairs, and outcasts. They believed that the accusers were deliberately lying, thus casting aspersions on the reputations of fine people; causing them and their families to suffer their own unearned and lifelong stigma.

The tide has changed somewhat as some rabbinic leaders have been educated to better understand the realities of sexual abuse. Unfortunately not all segments have made the same degree of progress and in some instance have made little to no progress.

I am not going to go into which segments seem to be doing better than others. But in at least the case of one Charedi organization  there seems to have been a huge step forward: an organization founded by Rabbi Zvi Gluck  called Amudim. In the 8 minute video below he spells it all out in plain language. I believe it is well worth watching – and listening to what he has to say. He was not reticent about pointing out the past shortcomings of the rabbinic leadership on this issue.

For a Charedi rabbi to go out on a limb like this says a lot about this young man’s character. But it perhaps it also says something  about a Charedi world that respects what he is doing. I don’t know of any criticism he has received. I know only about the praise he has gotten. If I remember correctly,  Rabbi Gluck had a very positive cover story in one of the Charedi magazines a while back. Well deserved in my view.

Perhaps the Charedi world is finally rising to the occasion. He is fully funded to the tune of a $2.5 million annual budget. Not an easy sum to raise. He must be doing something right. Probably a lot of ‘somethings’. It is no small wonder that he ended up in the Vatican speaking to Pope Francis on this issue.

I wonder though if the Charedi leadership generally supports him. How does this affect their position that one must first report credible suspicions of abuse to rabbis? Is that still their position? What is Amudim’s position on that?

Perhaps more importantly how do survivors and survivor advocates feel about what he is doing? Do they fully support him. Are there any reservations? If so what are they?

If there are any at all, I have to believe that he is doing a lot more good than bad. There is probably a lot more to praise than to criticize. I don’t think there is another organization like it in the Charedi world.

Rabbi Gluck is indeed an individual that is ‘uniquely dedicated to protecting the vulnerable and strengthening the defenseless.’ God bless him for that. And thank you, Jewish Week for finding him and including him in your 36 under 36.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Elephant in the Room is Islam

Manchester Arena after an Islamist suicide bombing Monday evening. (NYT)
First I want to make it abundantly clear that this is not an anti Islam rant. What I am about to discuss is not meant to bash Muslims in any way. To the best of my understanding, the vast majority of Muslims are fine law abiding people with strong religious values. Many of which align with Judaism. In fact I would say that as a people, there are far more Muslims that are observant of their religion than there are Jews observant of theirs (ours).

The Muslims that I have met in my life have all been are among the  nicest and kindest people I have ever encountered. Most of them just want to be left alone to practice their faith and otherwise get along with their neighbors. They are just as fearful and upset by the terror committed in the name of Islam as I am - or as anyone else is. And condemn it equally with the rest of us. There has been an increase of hate crimes against Muslims because of these acts of terror. Many of them suffer a variety of indignities because of it. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a Muslim in America now.  If anything, we should have sympathy for what these people go through because of their Jihadist coreligionists.

So what’s my problem? It is simply this. It has been Islam that is the source of the ideology that motivates these terrorists. Which has made terrorism the scourge of our time. With rare exception the violence perpetrated against the civilized world (mostly in Europe but with many instances of it here) has been done in the name of Islam. The people doing it are motivated by their faith in a version of Islam that promotes Jihad - religious war. A faith so strong that they are willing to give up their lives in pursuit of their religious goals. While it is a small minority of the Muslim world that has this ideology, enough of them do to make the world a very unsafe place these days.

The latest terrorist attack in Manchester, England was only the latest example of this. The terrorist was a Muslim. A citizen of the UK that was radicalized by that theology. A radicalization that can easily be accessed online. A radicalization that glorifies martyrdom. So that disaffected young Muslims whose parents might be mainstream and peaceful  will do what Salman Abedi did – put on a suicide belt and blow himself up along with as many people he can for the greater glory of Islam.

In this version of Islam there are no innocent victims. Or if there are, they are easily sacrificed for their Islamist cause. It should not be lost on observers that the targets of these people are not only places where maximum casualties will occur.  They are often places that Islam considers sinful. It was not a coincidence that a secular concert by Ariana Grande was chosen as a target. Not any more that it was a coincidence that Pulse, a gay bar in Orlando was chosen as a target by another Islamist.

I know that there will be some that will say that Islam is not alone in producing extremists. Christianity has had its share of crusades throughout the ages where thousands of innocent people have been slaughtered in the name of the Church.

Judaism has produced a few extremists of its own. Baruch Goldstein comes to mind. But the Baruch Goldsteins of the world are not killing for Judaism. In their warped state of mind they believed they were defending their people with pre-emptive strikes. That does not excuse their behavior. But at the same time they do not have a mission to spread terror throughout the world by recruiting people to kill innocents in mass murders or suicide terrorist attacks.

There is no recruiting. There are no Jewish websites that are designed to radicalize the Jewish young. No Jewish websites that describe in detail how to make bombs that will maximize causalities and suffering  when they are detonated.  And for every Baruch Goldstein there have been hundreds of attacks by Islamists against innocent people for only one purpose. To strike terror into the hearts of the ‘infidel’ world in order to further the cause of Islam.

How many more ‘Mancheters’ will it take before the world realizes that these terrorists are a product of Islam?  How many more times will we hear a world leader whose countrymen were slaughtered by an Islamist say almost reflexively that the perpetrator does not represent Islam? Or that Islam is a religion of peace?  Muslim clerics that stand right alongside them in silent acknowledgement does not take away from the fact that at the core, Islam is what motivates these terrorists.

These terrorists didn’t make up the ideology. There is a strain of Islam that preaches what they are doing. While I agree that the vast majority of Muslims are not part of this strain and condemn it right along with the rest of the world - that does not mean that it doesn’t exist. It clearly does. Al Qaida and ISIS are 2 groups that believe in that kind of Islam. I’m sure they are not the only ones. They do not think of themselves as criminals. We might call them that. But in their minds they are agents of God doing His ‘holy’ work.

The sooner the world wakes up to this ‘plain as day’ fact, the sooner we might be able to be a bit more effective in preventing these kinds of attacks in the future. I know that this kind of thinking is politically incorrect. I also realize that most Muslims will not appreciate terrorism and Islam being cast together.I don’t blame them.

But the fact is that even though the Islamists are a relatively small number of the whole - they are part of the same religion. And it is that ‘small’ number that is perpetrating all the terrorism in the world. (Yes, there are some exceptions of terror that are not Islam based. But they are minuscule compared to Islamist based terror.)

What, one may ask, is accomplished by recognizing this clear fact, other than further stigmatizing them? The answer should be oblivious.

The security apparatus of the United States currently focuses on increased security measures that affect everyone.  Every time there is an attack like the one in Manchester, we hear about stronger measures being taken at airports: better metal detectors; tighter control on what may be brought onto an aircraft; increasing the random number of ‘pat-downs’ at airports; more thorough searches of carry-on luggage; more restrictions on what may be brought aboard an aircraft; more scrutiny of electronic devices; removing shoes; going through x-ray machines… who know what’s next!

The one thing I have consistently noticed is that the security measures at Ben Gurion Airport are nowhere near as intrusive. Half of the things other airport’s require are not required by Israel. And yet Israel has not seen any kind of attack at their airports or on their aircraft. Considering that Israel is seen by them as Islam’s  greatest enemy one would think it would be a prime target. How can this be?

The answer is quite simple. Israel profiles. They look at the individual. They interrogate each passenger to determine if they are who they say they are. And if they are there for the reason they say they are. If a passenger is Musilm they are going to get extra scrutiny. It may be unfair and politically incorrect. But in our world today, what choice do we have? We can no longer afford the luxury of closing our eyes to Islam as the source of the problem.

Law enforcement and Homeland Security needs to be more vigilant with a people whose religion harbors Jihadists. Not harassment. Not expelling Muslims or not barring them from entry. But a careful and watchful eye. Is profiling and extra scrutiny for Muslims unfair? Yes. But, as Israel might tell you - it’s necessary.  This should be the unofficial policy if not the official one. Because in my view it will save many lives.

One may ask how I would feel if Jews were treated this way. My answer would be that I would feel the same way. If Jews were the ones blowing themselves up in mass crowds on a regular basis, I would expect – and even desire that we Jews are all carefully screened to assure the safety of the rest of all of us.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Jerusalem Day

Israeli paratroopers upon entering Jerusalem in ‘67 and seeing the Kotel
I can’t let this day go by without mention of Yom Yerushalayim. Today is the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and the return of Har Habayis – the Temple mount into Jewish hands. The first time that has happened in the 2000 years since the destruction of the 2nd Temple.  There is not a Jew in the world whose Judaism means anything to them that does not understand the significance of this day. Or at least they should if they don’t.

Without getting to wordy, the Temple Mount was where the Beis HaMikdash – our Holy Temple was located. This is where God’s ‘presence’ (the Shechinah) rested. This is where the Kohanim - Jewish priests descendant of Aaron served God and offered sacrifices on the alter. Many of which were offered to atone for the sins of the people, without which says the Torah, there cannot be full atonement.

(How we deal with this issue today is beyond the scope of this post. Why we still cannot do so even though we are now proprietors of the sole area where sacrifices to God may be offered is also beyond the scope of this post. I mention it only to try and illustrate why this day is such a significant one to the Jewish people. I did not say Tachanun on this morining for this reason. As was the case with many Jews all over the world.)

I will never forget that day in June of 1967 - 50 years ago when the 6 day war broke out. It was a time that shocked the world. It was a time when just prior to it a lot of people were predicting the end of the Jewish State. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser had been threatening for years that he would someday drive the Jews into the sea. He finally tried to implement that threat 19 years after Israel declared  its independence - winning  a war declared against her by all surrounding Arab nations upon the UN’s partition of Palestine.

Long story short, in 1967 Israel won a lightening war against her Arab neighbors in 6 days – retaking the entire West Bank of the Jordan River… an area that included East Jerusalem, the Kotel and the Temple Mount.  I get a chill up and done my spine when I think of General Motta Gur’s declaration upon entering the old city saying ‘Har HaBayis B’yadenu’  (the temple mount is in our hands). As I do every time I see the iconic image (above) of those first soldiers entering the old city and looking up at the Kotel.

Those were heady days.  Israelis were all of the sudden darlings of the media. Their military prowess was extolled by American generals with great admiration for their strategies and tactics. The image of the Israeli soldier was heroic. Israeli pilots were described as the best in the world. Religious Jews all over the world were talking about the miracles that happened during those 6 days of war.

To say I was proud is an understatement. Never was I so proud to be wearing a kipa in public!

It is now 50 years later. Instead of being the darlings of the media, Israel is now seen as occupiers of an indigenous population of Palestinians who under it’s thumb are being oppressed. Instead of talking about Israel’s military prowess, they are talking about Israel as an Apartheid state. The UN under the influence of Arab nations has condemned Israel a countless number of times and Europe has been their willing accomplices in that goal.

And what about Har Habayis? It’s hard to feel like it is ‘in our hands’ when it is controlled by Muslim clerics and only Muslims are allowed to pray there. Further complicating matters is the fact that Israel has already shown its hand about Jerusalem’s future. Despite current assurances by Israel’s leaders that Jerusalem will never be divided again - that all of it will forever remain in Jewish hands… Palestinians know that under the right governing coalition they will get East Jerusalem (which contains Har HaByis) as part of any peace deal.  

I am a realist about this and would even support it - if it would truly end the bloodshed; with Israel remaining a Jewish state with secure borders; which are recognized by the entire world. I know this is not a popular view among many of my friends. But I stand by it.

If that does not turn out to be the case… and all of Jerusalem would somehow remain in Jewish hands as part of a final peace deal, no one will be happier than I would be about it. I hope that happens. But I doubt that it will.

It would not be a happy occasion for me if Jewish sovereignty over Har Habayis would be ceded to Palestinians. It would make me quite sad in fact. But if that’s the price of ending the bloodshed, my sadness comes second. 

Until then, I choose to celebrate the return of Jerusalem into Jewish hands as I recall the glory of the past. Who knows? Maybe it will stay that way.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Misguided Ideals - Opting Out of Orthodoxy

Maharat ordainees at their 2013 graduation ceremony - idealistic but misguided
It appears that the OU (Orthodox Union) is following up on its directive to their member synagogues. Which was that they may not hire women to serve as rabbis. Last February, a group of distinguished rabbis released a Teshuva (reponsum) that outlined what a woman may – and may not do – in the broad spectrum of professional roles in a Shul. 

The short version is that a woman may not be a rabbi in the traditional sense of the word. She may not lead a Shul in that capacity. However she may be heavily involved in many of the services usually reserved for a rabbi.

For example a woman may be a mentor, an educator, teach, give lectures, serve as a visiting scholar in residence, serve as a director of various synagogue programs, or serve as a spiritual or pastoral counselor. And although there was some disagreement about the legitimacy of Yoatzot – female Halachic advisers to women on matters of Taharas HaMishpacha - it was agreed that Yoetzet can be a valuable resource in furtherance of that Mitzvah… and that employing a woman trained as a Yoetzet would certainly not disqualify a Shul from membership in the OU.  

At the time this responsum was released, I made note of the fact that virtually the entire Orthodox establishment had rejected the legitimacy of a woman as a rabbi.  And yet some modern Orthodox Shuls that were otherwise members in good standing of the OU hired women to serve as rabbis or assistant rabbis. In some cases even using the title rabbi.  

These women were ordained by Yeshivat Marahat – a seminary created by Rabbi Avi Weiss for the purpose of ordaining women. These women study the material traditionally studied by male students for the rabbinate, tested the same way, and if they pass the exams, they are awarded Semicha.

I have no problem with women studying the material and being tested on it. Nor do I have a problem rewarding them with some sort title recognizing their achievements. But I do have a problem with flouting the repsonsa of virtually all rabbinic authorities, from the Charedi authorities of organizations like Agudah; to the  rabbinic authorities of Centrist organizations like the RCA and the OU; to the rabbinic authorities of the  European rabbinate; to the Israeli rabbinate. All of whom consider female rabbis to be violating tradition and possibly even Halacha. 

I am not aware of a single recognized Posek from any Orthodox stream that approves of it. Those who are pushing it are nowhere near the stature of those who disapprove. But that hasn’t stopped some synagogue rabbis from asserting themselves in this regard. These rabbis may be very intelligent. And knowledgeable. And they may have their heart in the right place – feeling that the time has come to recognize that women can do anything as well men. But that does not give them the right to overturn the Teshuvos of men far wiser who have rejected it.  

Which is why the  OU is now backing up its Teshuva with action. From VIN
(T)he Orthodox Union is pressuring synagogues that have hired the women to change their titles… (They sent) a three-member delegation to meet with the four synagogues to discuss compliance with the ruling — including requesting that at least two of the women clergy change their titles.
The delegation met with Thomas-Newborn and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky at Bnai David-Judea earlier this month….  But Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom told JTA that the delegation did not exclude the possibility of expulsion from the O.U. over the issue.
“It felt like a threat because they sent three men to our congregation and interrogated us about our practices,” he told JTA. “And they said everything is on the table, and they said we’re not in compliance. I took that as a threat, that there’s a possibility of expulsion from the O.U. They did not deny that.”
Both Friedman and Kanefsky said they would not compromise on the title. 
It seems to be finally happening. There is going to be yet another split in Judaism. There will be Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and this new (yet to be named) breakaway movement, that will no longer be considered part of Orthodoxy. Now it’s true that the OU has not yet decided whether these Shuls will be expelled. But based on the above I don’t think the OU will have a choice. If there is no change, these Shuls will no longer be able to call themselves Orthodox since they will no longer have the imprimatur of any Orthodox institutional body.

How sad it is when one places an ideal – even one as worthy as egalitarianism – above the principles of the Torah as expressed by virtually all Poskim of stature. This is not about what I or anyone else thinks is fair or just. It’s not about any kind of hierarchical structure dictating  policy from on high based on the misogyny of the past.

It’s about the right of virtually all contemporary Poskim…  Poskim that are not in any way misogynistic… Poskim that have  just as much compassion and sense of fairness as those supporting it - rejecting it for idealistic reasons based on  their superior knowledge, understanding of the Halachic process. And respect for tradition which they believe should rarely be altered except in the most dire of circumstances. Of which this is not one.

As I’ve said many times in the past, none of this makes me happy. Because despite my profound disagreement with them, I realize that it is their own sense of idealism that motivates them (misguided though I believe it to be).  I hate to lose bright, idealistic, and highly motivated Jews from Orthodoxy. Which these women and their supporters surely are. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Trump’s Trip

President Trump at the Kotel - which is on the West Bank (Jewish Press/ABC)
I am a big fan of peace. Especially in my ancestral homeland, Israel. Which is why I support any reasonable plan that can be accepted by both sides. And why I supported Ehud Barak’s attempts to sign a peace treaty with the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000. It almost happened. Except that ‘almost’ only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades.

Arafat could not bring himself to sign off on that treaty. President Clinton, who tried mightily to make it happen blamed Arafat for letting that golden opportunity slip by him.  

One may ask how I could have supported a peace plan that gave up East Jerusalem? I didn’t like it. But for me a treaty that would bring acceptance by the Arab world of Israel as  Jewish State; allow unfettered access to the Kotel; allow for larger border settlements like Maale Adumim to be retained by Israel in exchange for un-populated land swaps; bring about the end to the violence and bloodshed; and that would usher in  a new era of peace and cooperation between Israel and her Arab neighbors - was worth the price.  Are these parameters unreasonable? Not at all. They have already been agreed to by Israel and Palestinian leaders at Camp David in 2000 under the President Clinton.

What about giving up Jewish sovereignty on Har HaBayis (the Temple Mount where our holy temple once stood)? I don’t think we ever really had sovereignty there accept in name only. Muslim clerics did -and still do. In my view giving up East Jerusalem is a small price to pay for the kind of peace I just described.  

I know that a lot of my friends will see me as some sort of traitor. Give up Har HaBayis? How dare I?! What kind of a Jew am I?! Well it isn’t me giving it up. It was the then Israeli Prime Minister (and current Defense Minister) Ehud Barak giving it up as head of state. Who had the right as the democratically elected head of state to do so. I merely supported it for the reasons I stated.

That was the ideal. But realty is elsewhere. Giving up Gaza has demonstrated that giving up any land for peace in a climate where terrorists like Hamas calls the shots - is a fool’s errand. And should not be done under any circumstances. So at the moment I wouldn’t even give up the West Bank even if they agreed to cede all of East Jerusalem to Israel.

Because that will not bring peace. It will only bring more bloodshed. As has proven to be the case after we gave them Gaza. Instead of showing what peaceful relations and cooperation could achieve, Hamas has doubled down on what they really have in mind: retaking by any means necessary - all of Palestine from the ‘Zionist Jews that (with the world’s complicity) stole it from them’.

I bring this all up now since we have a new President who is following in the footsteps of his predecessors in the belief that he can do what they could not: forge a real and lasting peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

Many people are guffawing at that. Trump?! He is the least qualified of all to accomplish this task! What does he or any of ‘his men’(Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and David Friedman)  know about the Middle Eastern mindset? They are novices whose expertise lies elsewhere. Others that actually are experts and familiar with the slightest minutia of that mindset have been working on this for decades. They have all failed! Trump thinks he can just walk in knowing next to nothing about the situation and pull off the impossible?! What can he possibly do differently that will allow him to do it?

To make matters worse, Trump did his level best to alienate every Muslim in the world, disparaging  them during the campaign. And after... banning them from entering this country; treating them all like terrorists . Does he really think he’s going to have any sway with an Arabs in the Middle east, the vast majority of whom are Muslims?

With resumes like this, it is not too difficult to predict big time failure. Trump will accomplish nothing. World leaders already hate him. The Media hates him. The Democrats hate him. More than half of America hates him. How is he going to convince anyone to do anything, let alone change over 100 years of Jew hatred in the Middle East.

Well a funny thing has happened. He is currently on an overseas mission to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Rome trying to unite the 3 major faiths to fight terrorism. Muslims not only do not hate him, they have given him honor like no other President in history. He managed to convene a conference in Saudi Arabia attended by leaders of fifty Muslim countries. And he spoke truth to them, telling them that they must rid their countries (and even the world) of the people in their midst that persecute Jews, murder Christians, and commit all kinds of terror in the name of Islam.  

Not a single leader walked out on him.

He also scrapped the Obama ban on selling Saudi Arabia weapons.  Which they will now use in the fight against terror. He spoke of the two biggest enemies of the Arabs in the region: ISIS and Iran. There is no doubt that this is true. It is also true that ISIS and Iran are the biggest threat to Israel. Which makes Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and Israel natural allies.

It appears that there is already behind the scenes cooperation between them. One of Trump’s goals is to make this cooperation more open. These circumstances did not exist a few short years ago. But they exist today and Trump is going to take advantage of them. And he will use the above mentioned people he put in place to accomplish it. Jason Greenblatt, for one has has already earned the respect of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas despite his well known support of Israel.

It should not be lost on anyone that Abbas has said about Trump that if anyone can achieve peace it’s him. He said he really thinks Trump can succeed where Obama has failed. If one thinks about Trump’s negative rhetoric about Muslims during the campaign, it should be shocking that any of this is happening. And yet – it is!

What about my fears that giving up the West Bank to Palestinians is a prescription for more bloodshed than ever? I still feel  that way. But I also trust Israel’s leadership. If they are willing to accept a peace deal brokered by the Trump administration, it will not be at the expense of more violence and bloodshed. Whatever one thinks of Israel’s leadership, they are not stupid. Nor are they suicidal.

How will it all happen? I can’t answer that. I acknowledge that the chances for a peace deal are slim if history is any kind of teacher.  But then again you never know. Trump seems to have made a peace deal between Israel and the Arabs his top foreign policy objective.

No matter how one feels about the President... even if you despise him and think he should be impeached, I believe we should all hope and pray that he succeeds. Because that will save Jewish lives. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Why Rabbi Mazuz's Tirade Against Reform Judaism is Wrong

Rabbi Meir Mazuz - center of photo (Arutz Sheva)
Reform Jews are Jews in every sense of the word. I mention this in light of yet another tirade by Charedi rabbinic leader, Rabbi Meir Muzuz, head of the Sephardi Yeshivat Kashei Rachamim. He has joined the ranks of other rabbis who have said that Reform Jews are not Jews.  

I believe that he knows better. Anyone born of a Jewish mother is a Jew. It doesn’t matter what movement they belong to. It doesn’t matter if they don’t follow Halacha at all. It doesn’t even matter if they are anti Torah. They are still Jews. What is true about Reform is that their movement has redefined what a Jew actually is. Their rejection of Halacha as a mandate for all Jews has spawned new laws of their own that contradict Halacha. 

Like that of patralineal descent. Halacha does not accept a the child of a non Jewish mother as Jewish even if the father is Jewish. Even if he is the most observant man in the world, his offspring is still not Jewish if the mother is not. Additionally if I understand correctly they no longer require any kind of ritual conversion process. If a non Jew starts identifying as Jew and lives his life that way (whatever that means in the Reform movement),they are accepted as Jewish.

So  why the tirade? He was expressing his overall views of the Reform movement citing examples of how callous they were to observing Halacha: citing  their history and  their failures. All in reaction to their current attempts to get ‘a piece of the Kotel’ for themselves. He is adamantly opposed to it and expressed it in a heated  tirade.

Although I agree with him about the Reform movement’s failures, I don’t believe he advances the cause of the Judaism with that tirade.  Most Reform Jews are simply ignorant of their own Judaism. Until recent times Reform Jews did not necessarily lead their lives in any way that is specifically Jewish. Those that were committed to the worthy goals of Tikun Olam and worked hard on those goals were not doing anything specifically Jewish. Tikun Olam is not specific to Jews. Non Jews believe in those same goals and work just as hard as Reform Jews do. (There are also plenty of Orthodox Jews that work towards Tikun Olam.) Tikun Olam is therefore not a distinctive identifier for a Jew.

With no identifying feature, A Reform Jew hardly needed to maintain any Jewish identity. What was the point?  So a few years ago, the movement changed direction. Instead of discouraging the performance of Mitzvos as archaic and unnecessary, they started encouraging them (although not requiring them). As an example, many of their their rabbis started wearing Kipot and their temples started putting up Sukkos for that holiday on their premises. They finally realized that without a distinct way of life, there was nothing Jewish about how they lived their lives. and were therefore losing members.

That is a positive development. And we Orthodox should not only take note of it, but encourage it. This is not the time to disengage with them. We should instead reach out to them – and enlighten the Reform Jew that wants to express their Judaism in the more concrete way of Mitzvah observance. Who better to show them how to do it than the Orthodox Jew? Which is why to this day I lament the kind of outreach attempted by Rabbi Yosef Reinman, a Charedi rabbi who befriend a Reform rabbi and then authored a book together with him. They had one appearance together on a book tour where Rabbi Reinman saw an unprecedented  opportunity for outreach. 

The people he addressed on that tour were unlikely to ever meet an Orthodox rabbi any other way. Imagine the potential… But he was told by the American Charedi leadership to cease and desist from doing that since appearing on the same stage with a Reform rabbi gave the appearance of tacit recognition of their movement. Even though they made clear that appearing together should not be construed as agreement, it didn’t matter to the rabbinic leaders who told him to stop. So he did and lost a tremendous opportunity to reach out to Reform Jews.

Back to Rabbi Mazuz. His tirade has done nothing except make matters worse. This does not mean that we should not oppose Reform attempts at getting recognition. We should. It is in fact not a legitimate expression of Judaism. In my view we are obligated to oppose all attempts at recognition by movements that we see as illegitimate. Which includes opposing Israel recognizing them.  Yes, Israel must accept Reform Jews as full fledged Jews as they should. That is what Halacha requires provided they are born of a Jewish mother.  But a Jewish country should not accept a movement as a legitimate expression of Judaism that denies the Torah’s requirement to follow Halacha.

At the same time, one should not say or do things that alienate them. Which Rabbi Mazuz’s tirade certainly contributed to.

His tirade against Reform was intended for the ears of the Charedi Kenesset members. He urged them to reject any attempt at giving then any portion of the Kotel. The fact that he felt the need to express it  indicates that the Charedi parties are not necessarily on board with him. This is not to say they wouldn’t prefer not giving them anything. I’m sure they would. But at the same time, they realize that giving them a different part of the Kotel will end the controversy and constant conflict that takes place at the Kotel - allowing the Kotel to remain with their traditional Orthodox customs and practices without interference. 

As long as doing that does not include any official recognition of their movements, I support the idea of giving them their own portion of the Kotel. Not only for the above mentioned reasons. But also for the outreach opportunities that will surely arise. There are many indications that a lot of non Orthodox Jews are ready for it. They are looking for a spirituality that has been missing from their lives and we Orthodox Jews can help them find it. 

This is not to say that this will stem the tide of total assimilation that has been the hallmark of Reform Judaism since its founding. That is truer today than ever before. But that should not free us from the task of trying to preserve Judaism for as many Jews as we can. The one thing we should not do is what Rabbi Mazuz did. Because that will not only not help outreach, it will do exactly the opposite and chase them all as far away from us as possible.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Can Religious Zionism Survive?

RZ  students in Merkaz Harav  -They are exempt from army service (JP)
One might think that Modern Orthodox (MO) Jews are doomed after reading the somewhat shocking results of a survey in Israel. Well, not so much Modern Orthodox Jews, but Religious Zionist (National Religious) Jews. They are often seen as the Israeli equivalent of modern Orthodox.

The headline of a Jewish Press article says it all: ‘Only 46% of Next Generation National Religious Israelis Keep the Faith.’

With all of the talk about the record number of Charedim going OTD, what is happening in modern Orthodox circles along these lines seems to have been ignored. Until now. What gives? Why is this happening at such an alarming level? Are Charedi critics of modern Orthodoxy right? Do we – because of our engagement with the culture  - suffer a higher rate of attrition? I honestly don’t know the answer to that. Suffice it to say that this problem exists in both worlds. I have discussed this phenomenon in the Charedi context. But as of yet I haven’t done much about it in the Modern Orthdodx context.

First, I think we need to separate Israelis from Americans.  The experiences of these two groups are so radically different, that the two cannot be compared. Let us look at some of those differences.

Americans have one great disadvantage over Israelis. Aside from their  homes and schools American influences are mostly secular. While most MO homes are generally religious Zionist (RZ), they do not live it the way Israelis do.

RZs in Israel are born and bred into this philosophy as a way of life. Which is constantly reinforced especially by their mandatory army service.  Modern Orthodox American youth are weaned into an RZ mindset, but (except for the most idealistic)  tend to focus on the American culture. True they mostly attend religious schools that whose orientation is RZ. They thurs learn to respect ‘everything Israel’. However their connection with the actual state might come during what’s called the ‘gap year’. Which is the year spent in Israel post high school - most likely at an American Religious Zionist Yeshiva.

After that they go on to college for career purposes. If motivated enough about their Judaism they might attend YU or HTC.  But  the focus is mostly on career even while Torah study is an important priority. There are of course exceptions that go 'right' and end up in places like Ner Israel or even Lakewood eventually. But they are the exception. What percentage of them keep the faith of their parents - I don't know. But their circumstance is different from the Israeli circumstance - which is the focus of the study.

RZ Israeli youth live their Religious Zionism every day. Most see army service as a sublime duty. While there are some that go into Hesder type programs… and even a few that might go into Nachal Charedi, I believe it is mostly the case that they serve in the regular IDF – often choosing highly specialized programs that lead them into dangerous assignments.

The regular army is not a good culture for the religious student. It is an army culture stringent about its rules without paying much atenttion to religiosity. This is not to say that the army is anti religious. But the culture that has evolved is at best agnostic about religion.

One can be entirely observant serving in the army. And I assume that is largely the case. But it is also quite easy to becomes entirely non observant. The peer group and friends one makes while serving can easily be fine people but not religious who expose these young students to an exiting and entirely different world from the one in which they are raised.

It is also a fact that the army is by definition the great equalizer. So that religious and secular recruits lead pretty much the same lives. They wear the same uniforms, eat the same food, live together in barracks and fight along side each other. This creates a bond unlike a simple friendship that might develop for Americans in a college environment. One that will surely impact greatly on ones religiosity.

I want to be clear. The army is not purposely disabusing their recruits of religious observance. I know a lot of RZs that have served in the IDF and came out unscathed. But it can’t be denied that the army experience weighs heavily on one’s religious observance. If one does not enter the army highly committed to it, it is can easily slip away.

This is my theory, although I admit it is anecdotal and based on my own personal observation. Nonetheless I think it might be one reason why (according to this study) the majority of RZ children do not live up to their parents religious standards.

I’m sure there additional factors. Or entirely different ones in many cases. But they may apply in both countries. The one thing that stands out  that is different from Americans is that army service is required of all Israelis.

Which is a double edged sword. On the one hand, living one’s Judaism is far more likely in a Jewish country. Serving in the military should just be a extension of that. But the nature of the army may undermine observance. And observance is the epitome of Judaism.

While 46% is a large number of Religious Zionists that remain in their parents religious orbit, it is obvious that the 54% that don’t is a majority that doesn't. That is shocking and should not be ignored. I think it would be wise for religious Zionist leaders to face this reality and change the army dynamic.

Perhaps Nachal Charedi or a similar army  program designed for RZ families should be implemented. It seems that parents cannot rely on the idealism that was instilled in their children. While that is wonderful when it happens and an idealistic soldier can easily maintain his religiosity in a secular army - it seems not to be working for the majority. Is this a acceptable condition for Religious Zionists in Israel as we move forward? Not in my book.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Is it a Witch Hunt?

Robert S. Mueller - newly appointed special counsel to investigate the President
Once again, I find myself in the awkward position of defending a President that I wish would never have been nominated – let alone elected. I am not going t re-hash all of my issues with him. Been there and done that ad nauseam.  But since I am in the  ‘business’ of Emes (as I understand it)  I feel the need to do it. This should not, however, be misconstrued as having changed my negative views of the President. It hasn't.

Yesterday,  Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein announced his appointment of Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel to investigate the possible coordination with the Russians to influence the election.

The last time that happened was when Ken Starr was appointed to investigate President Clinton. Upon the completion of that investigation it was determined that Clinton lied under oath to congress. Who then voted to impeach him.  They did not however vote to remove him from office.

The only other time in my own lifetime this happened was when President Nixon was investigated in the Watergate affair. He was in danger of being impeached because it was determined that he too obstructed justice. He decided to resign (in disgrace) rather than face impeachment.

Now it’s Trump’s turn. Or is it? My own view is that it is not. Trump will not be impeached. At least not for this. Let us review the series of events that led up to Mueller’s appointment.

It has been determined by US intelligence agencies that the Russians did indeed try to influence the election. Not by fixing votes. But by leaking some of Hillary Clinton’s private emails (sent to them by Wiki-leaks). That weakened her candidacy - thereby strengthening Trump. Upon discovery of these additional emails, (now ex) FBI Director James Comey said he would reopen the investigation of Clinton. This happened shortly before the election. Hillary Clinton blamed Comey for her loss to Trump.

Since the election Trump’s National Security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn was fired because he misled Vice President Mike Pence about contact with Russian officials during the election. He was later replaced by General H. R. McMaster. Who has been a staunch defender of Trump’s innocence in disclosing secret Israeli intelligence to the Russian foreign Minister.

Last week, Trump suddenly fired Comey. Shortly after he was fired, Comey released a memo he had taken during a meeting with President Trump the day after Flynn was fired. That memo said the following: 
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go” “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” 
The media, Democrats, and even some Republicans seized on this as evidence that Trump tried to obstruct justice by telling the FBI director to stop the investigation of his ties to Russia. The assumption being that Trump's intent was to avoid being discovered show that he did conspire with them to influence the election. 

That’s a great narrative if one believes that Trump is a scoundrel who had ulterior motives for becoming President and therefore used whatever means he could - including  illegal ones - to get there. I’m convinced that many people think this is fact. I do not.

There has not been one shred of evidence produced to date that Trump had any ties with the Kremlin. Just a lot of speculation.  

Why did he fire Comey? That’s an easy one. He didn’t want to be investigated. Not because he’s guilty of anything. But because you never know what they are going to find under some rock that will make him look guilty of something. And perhaps more importantly because he didn’t want to spend his time defending himself of false accusations. There has been a lot of speculation about such ties. Nothing has been produced that show that he is guilty of anything. I am certain that no effort has been spared in trying to find something to pin on him. So far, nothing. 

What about Comey’s memo? Doesn’t that show that he tried to obstruct justice by telling him to stop the investigation? No, it doesn’t. All it shows is that Trump is a man of compassion who doesn’t like ‘good people’ like Flynn to get into any more trouble than he was already in. 

He felt that Flynn had suffered enough because of this and just wanted to spare him and his family any more grief. Remember also that the meeting with Comey happened the day Flynn was fired. If one looks at the wording of the memo, it is obvious what his intent was. He didn’t threaten anyone. He didn't insist on shutting down the investigation. He just asked him to consider the consequences to a ‘good man’ if this were to proceed. The point being ‘intent’. 

Obstruction of justice is all about intent. If one tries to end an investigation because he fears being caught in a crime, that would be obstruction of justice. If on the other hand he asks that perhaps the investigation into Flynn end for reasons of compassion, that does not show intent. He wasnit ryting to avoid being discovered of a crime since he didn't commit one. That is not obstruction. He did not threaten to fire him Comey if he didn’t. He just asked. From the way the memo was worded, it seemed Trump was just expressing a moment of compassion for a ‘good man’.  And in that memo, Comey seemed to agree with that description of Flynn.

Trump may someday be impeached. But not from this. This is not like Nixon who was guilty of covering up the Watergate burglary and tried to obstruct justice - lying about his friends’ (Haldeman and Ehrlichman) involvement in it. 

It is not like Bill Clinton who lied under oath about his sexual escapades with a young female intern. 

I don’t see any lies here by Trump. Nor do I see any evidence of a Trump conspiracy with Russia to influence the election. 

Which begs the question, why are so many others saying (or implying) that Trump did obstruct justice?  One Republican, John McCain has even said that the investigation is now at Watergate levels. And what about the media? They are all but salivating at this news and have all but declared Trump guilty. 

In order to understand why there is so much animosity towards Trump one does not have to be a rocket scientist. The one thing Trump has been consistently good at in spades is making enemies of the media. As he has been in alienating some of his natural Republican constituency. Trump has no idea how to react to criticism except to lash out (or hit back as he likes to put it) at his critics as harshly as he can with exaggerations and lies. His ‘diarrhea of the brain’ has resulted in insulting national heroes like John McCain. And his limited vocabulary doesn’t help him either.

Democrats are more than happy to paint him guilty. Because he wants to destroy a lot of their sacred cows – like Obamacare and taxing the rich.  The media is making it easy for them. Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House oversight committee is a constant presence on the air whose dulcet tones make his characterization of Trump sound credible and fair. 

But if one really pays attention one can see that Chaffetz is enjoying the party (and the limelight) - allowing others  to do the dirty work. He thus sounds objective.  Liberal Republicans like Susan Collins have been saying some of the same things their Democratic colleagues have been saying. Which gives Democrats cover by saying that this isn't partisan - and not a witch hunt at all. Just an attempt to get the facts.

I’m kind of glad that Mueller has been chosen as an independent counsel. I doubt he will find anything. I don’t believe there is anything there to find. Let them get on with it – and end it once and for all so that Trump can get on with his agenda, which is not all that bad. Unless you are a Democrat or liberal Republican.

Now if I’m wrong. And Trump is guilty, that will be a win for Conseratives. If Trump is impeached for obstructiong justice and removed from office, then he will be replaced by man that will bring honor back to the Oval Office.

I don’t however think that will happen. Trump will remain in office despite the best efforts of his political opponents and the media to paint him in the worst possible tones.

At the end of the day, Is this all just a witch hunt? I think it might be. It’s OK to hate the President. Free country. But it is not OK to view everything he does in negative tones. Because that’s just plain old fashioned prejudice at work.