Friday, September 19, 2014

STDs in Bnei Brak?

Typical street scene in Bnei Brak
First let me clearly state that the vast majority of Charedim are God fearing Jews whose main purpose in life is to serve God to the best of their ability. The very term “Charedi’ means ‘trembler’. It is based on the notion that a truly religious Jew is Charedi L'Davar HaShem - trembles before God. 

This does not mean that they walk around obsessed and shaking with fear. What it means is that they understand the infinitely awesome nature of their Creator; go to great lengths to connect with Him and serve Him to the best of their ability. This is the primary focus of their lives.

And since Torah study is the most important Mitzvah, they try and spend the lion’s share of their time doing it. Without forsaking any of their other Halachic responsibilities to both man and God as they understand them.  Which they also perform to the best of their ability. Of course this does not mean that all succeed at the highest levels in all areas. But the vast majority of them do try.

Which is why I am so disappointed when Charedim are all painted with the same brush when bad behavior is exhibited by a small number of them.  Or when their Hashkafos are blamed for the OTD phenomenon. The fact is that going OTD in the Charedi world is the exception. Not the rule. The idea of being Chareid L’Dvar HaShem should apply to all of us. It is just another way of saying that we should all have Yiras Shomayim – being in Awe of Heaven (God). Not enough of us do that. At least not as much as we should.

That said, I am increasingly coming to believe that the numbers of OTD Charedim are beginning to increase exponentially. One of  the more intelligent, knowledgeable, and frequent contributors to my blog asked a question yesterday in the context of my MbP post that should not go unnoticed. I will repeat it here: 
“Why do so many frum, married women have genital herpes?” 
In a subsequent comment she explained how she knew this: 
I do know someone in obstetrics in Mayanei Hayeshua which is a major charedi hospital in Bnai Brak who knows that many frum women have acquired STD's (sexually transmitted diseases) including but not limited to genital herpes after years of marriage ... most likely due to husband's philandering.  
I must admit that this is quite shocking news. I know this contributor personally and she is as honest as the day is long. A woman of great integrity. There is no way she would make a statement like that if it weren’t true. I therefore submit that her source in obstetrics in Bnei Brak is impeccable or she wouldn't have quoted her. This isn’t just just a run of the mill rumor. This is an observation by a medical professional specializing in obstetrics who works with these patients daily. She is an eyewitness to it.

Many Frum married women! Many!  Wow!

Like I said, the vast majority of them do not have this problem. But many do. How many? I don’t know. As a percentage of the whole it is probably very small. But in terms of sheer numbers, the word many sounds shocking to me. It is a lot more than a few.

The question is why is this case? It is very nice to focus on the positive and say how truly pure the masses mostly are. But what about the ‘many’ who aren’t and their innocent - even unintended victims of STDs, their wives? It is quite likely that most of the Charedi women raised in Bnei Brak who have this problem aren’t even aware how STDs are transmitted. Thus perpetuating their own problem by having sexual relations with infected husbands even after they are treated for the disease.

And it isn’t only women that philandering Bnei Brak husbands are involved with. It is men too. From a Ynet article of a few months ago: 
Some 5,600 religious homosexuals have joined the Hod organization (an acronym for religious gays in Hebrew) since its establishment in 2008, according to figures presented by the organization in a special seminar held in collaboration with the Israel Psychological Association. 
Hod founder Rabbi Ron Yosef presented data showing that the organization received 6,325 appeals since its establishment, 5,585 of them from haredi and religious homosexuals and 740 from parents, educators, counselors and professionals. 
About 70% of the appeals came from the national-religious sector, and about 30% from the haredi and Hasidic sectors.

These are shocking numbers too. Especially if one considers the fact that ‘outing’ yourself as gay in Bnei Brak is a prescription for being shunned by friends, neighbors, family and religious leaders… your entire world! My guess is that most homosexuals in Bnei Brak are keeping themselves on the ‘down-low’. No one knows. They tend to follow community customs and get married. But they tend to cheat on their wives with other homosexual men on a regular basis. And since they want to keep secret that they are gay, they certainly don't go to treatment centers like HOD.

The focus should not be on those who live according to the ideals of Charedi Hashkafos. It ought to be on those who do not.  Even if they are only a small percentage and behave in a way that does not reflect  their real values. Because ‘many’ is not an acceptable number.

I have said this before and I think it is worth repeating. It is not the Hashkafa that is the problem. It is they way it is observed.  The fact happens to be that the focus on Torah study to the virtual exclusion of all else means that there are ‘many’ Charedim who cannot handle this lifestyle. They are not cut out for a life in the Beis HaMedrash. 

They would be far better off finding a niche whereby they can utilize their own unique talents in service of God. While there are many who at some point realize full time Torah study is not for them and make successful transitions to the workplace, there are many who fall through the cracks. And have nowhere to turn other than a world that has been characterized as the street. Whose values are characterized as the antithesis of the Torah.

It is also the fact that they have no outlet for just plain old ‘blowing off steam’. They are not allowed to go to movies, watch television, use the internet, watch sports, or even play them. If they are not in the Beis Hamedrash, they have nothing  to do… except get into trouble. Which lately means discovering the world outside via the internet. Which they somehow access. And without any preparation for it, they discover outlets that are far less kosher than a game of basketball with friends would be. Or even watching it on television. It is almost a straitjacket lifestyle for those who do not quite fit in to the mold of ‘learner’. A straight-jacket from which they desperately want to escape.

I’m sure that there are plenty of other reasons for this problem. But I can’t help but suspect that the rigid lifestyle that the typical Bnei Brak Jew leads is in part the cause of those who are not cut out for it - going OTD in a big way.

I have yet to see anyone address this issue other than a few articles here and there and a few courageous individuals who have taken it upon themselves to help young people who are victimized by the system. There is precious little being done - it seems - to deal with those who are victims and yet have managed to get married and have families, all while on the down-low - they are having affairs. It seems as though that community is in denial about it. Because all I ever hear about this community is how successful they are as a whole. What about the ‘many’ who aren’t? Well, if you don’t talk about them, I guess they don’t exist.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Metzitza B'Peh – Knowledge is Power

Mohel and MbP advocate, Rabbi Romi Cohen
It is a hot button issue that raises the hackles of the right. And it has been discussed to death. But the subject has come up again with a recent decision by a federal court criticizing the New York City Board of Health requirement of informed consent with respect to Metzitza B’Peh (MbP) - the over 3000 year old tradition of direct oral suction of the blood from the circumcision wound.

I understand the right wing argument against this requirement. But I still strongly disagree with them. To briefly restate the issue, the sages delineated the procedure for a Halachic circumcision (Bris Mila). The final step - Metziza (withdrawal of the blood) - is listed as the mandatory health requirement part of this procedure. Chazal required it in the belief that it was dangerous to the health of the child to leave that blood on the open circumcision wound. Although the Talmud never tells us how to do it, Metzitza has always been done B’Peh - by oral suction.

Over a century ago, when some babies died as a result of doing MbP, there were major Poskim who said it could be done in other, more sterile ways. There are Poskim today that say the same thing. On the other hand there are Poskim that disagree and say  that MbP is an absolute requirement and that Metzitza must be done orally.

A few years ago there were some babies that died shortly after their Bris - having contracted the herpes virus. It was determined that the Mohel had a live herpes virus but at the time it was asymptomatic. The New York City Health Department concluded that the herpes virus was contracted by the baby via the direct oral suction of the circumcision wound by the Mohel. Long story short - as a result of that conclusion they issued a requirement that parents give their informed consent in writing if they wanted the Mohel to use MbP.

Then all hell broke loose. Those communities (mostly Chasidic) that believe that MbP is a Halachic requirement felt that the government was encroaching on their religious rights. They took legal action and were joined by Agudath Israel in filing a federal lawsuit claiming a violation of the separation clause of the first amendment. Furthermore fueling the debate is the fact that many non Chasidic Yeshiva type communities prefer MbP - considering it more Mehudar (an enhancment of the basic Halachic requirement).

The right wing has also characterized this as an attack on Bris Mila itself – seeing this intrusion into our religious practices a slippery slope towards a ban on Mila itself.

The New York board of health on the other hand saw this as a health issue. In a nod to the first amendment they did not ban MbP since a baby contracting herpes from an infected Mohel is a rare occurrence. But they do consider it dangerous enough to require a warning. This is why they require informed consent in writing by the parents of a child about to be circumcised by a Mohel using MbP.

This all made sense to me. But in an surprising decision, a federal court issued a sharp criticism of this rule as specifically targeting a religious community… and thus violating the constitutional amendment separating church from state.

Avi Shick has written an op-ed in the New York Daily News supporting that decision – asking New York  Mayor, Bill de Blasio to rescind the requirement for informed consent. Avi is basically saying that the government should keep its nose out of our business. What about the health issue? He calls their argument about that weak. Among other things he says the following: 
To start, none of the experts the city relied upon were able to scientifically link any specific case of herpes to metzitzah b’peh . The expert affidavits that they submitted said only that it is “biologically plausible” that the virus can be transmitted through metzitzah b’peh , which, they assert, increases the risk of transmission. 
Even more damaging is that the rule targets only the few infections that arise after circumcision, even though the vast majority of newborn herpes infections are linked to other factors. 
As the court put it, the regulation “pertains to religious conduct associated with a small percentage of (herpes) infection cases among infants, while leaving secular conduct associated with a larger percentage of such infections unaddressed.” 
By focusing solely on a small subset of babies’ herpes cases while ignoring all others, the city invites skepticism about whether it was truly driven by a desire to improve health — or just wanted to regulate religion.
I have to disagree with him… and with the federal court’s decision. While I respect the right of any Jew in this country to practice their religion the way they see fit including doing MbP, I do not concede the right to do so without informing parents of a potential risk to their baby’s health. That it hasn’t yet been conclusively established that earlier deaths from herpes infections were the direct result of MbP by a Mohel who had an active herpes virus - does not mean it didn’t. Especially when circumstantial evidence suggests that it did.

Furthermore, I trust that the New York City Health Department has no ax to grind with Judaism and is only interested in preventing unnecessary disease and death. Even if it is rare - as it seems to be - if even one baby can be spared because of this rule, it is worth it.

No one is denying the procedure itself.  MbP remains legal. That’s probably because the board of health realizes that deaths from herpes transmission form a Mohel is rare. But parents have a right to be informed of the potential dangers as well as to know that there are many Poskim that rule MbP is not a Halachic requirement. That Metzitza can be Halachicly done in more sterile ways. Once so informed, they can choose wisely. If they choose to still do MbP on their child, that is a calculated risk they should be allowed to take.

I have no love of government regulation on issues that touch upon our beliefs and practices. Ordinarily I am completely opposed to them. I would prefer if we would self regulate on this issue. If for example Agudah would issue the warning themselves and list the pros and cons of MbP - along with the various opinions about whether MbP is a requirement or not - I would prefer that.

But there is little to no chance of them doing so. Possible infections from MbP will never be mentioned. They probably feel that incidences of a baby getting herpes as a result of an infected Mohel is so rare that it is not even worth mentioning.  They will also point to the fact that MbP has been practiced for centuries without issue. And they will argue that there has as of yet there has been no conclusive link between a Mohel with herpes transmitting via MbP to a baby who died of it.

They will also argue that MbP is less dangerous than Mila itself – so that using the ‘health argument’ should argue for a similar warning about Mila!

That may be true. But one cannot argue with a commandment by the Divine. Every male Jew is required to have a Bris. And from a health standpoint, current thinking by the medical community is that the health benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks.

The bottom line for me is that knowledge is power. Parents need to know the risks and they need to know the Halacha of any medical procedure done on their child. I don’t really see any other way to approach it. If we will not inform ourselves, then the government needs to do it for us.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Can There Be So Many Observant Skeptics?

Renowned Atheist, Christopher Hitchens
Here’s the breakdown in my completely unscientific poll on how many observant Jews are actually believers.

Modern Orthodox Believers                      114  (44%)
Modern Orthodox Non Believers                41  (16%)
Charedi Believers                                        71  (27%)
Charedi Non Believers                                29  (11%)
Total respondents                                       255 (100%)

Out of a possibly several thousand readers only 255 people responded. Of those – the lion’s share came from Modern Orthodox Jews who comprised 155 of the votes. 100 were Charedim.

 Assuming people were honest, I believe that this percentage of about 60% MO to 40% Charedi probably reflects the percentage of each that reads my blog. This may surprise some people since my views reflect a Centrist (MO) point of view. And that therefore the vast majority of comments seem to come from the MO world… in percentages far greater than 60%.

That surprises me too. Pleasantly. Because it means that Charedim value the Centrist point of view enough to want to know what it is even if they don’t always agree with it. And in some cases they may actually agree.  

It’s nice to know that the voice of Centrism is being heard in some Charedi circles. Even if the actual number is  negligible as a percentage of the whole.

Surprisingly the poll shows that Modern Orthodox Jews have a lower percentage of non believers than Charedim. 41 out of 155 people is about 26%. That means that about one out of every 4 Modern Orthodox Jews either doubt God’s existence, and/or do not believe that the Torah narrative about the events at Sinai (TMS) actually happened. That is a shockingly large percentage. Far greater than I would have imagined.

More shocking is the Charedi breakdown. Out of 100 Charedim fully 29 of them are non believers as I described them above. That is 29%, almost 1 out of every three!

Obviously this cannot not represent reality. It is impossible for me to believe the percentage is that high.  What accounts for that percentage in my poll? The only answer I can think of is that non believers were more motivated to respond than believers. By a lot. Which is one reason this poll unscientific. There is no way to control what motivates some people to respond more than others.

But let us grant that those numbers are indeed grossly inaccurate. I still think it shows that there are a lot more non believers in both the MO and Charedi world than anyone would have suspected. By a lot. I don’t know what the real percentages are. But we ought to find out with an actual scientific poll. 

The question arises as to why that may very well be the case. It might be understandable that there are MO skeptics since their exposure to the outside world is virtually unfettered. On the other hand they are probably better prepared to handle that exposure than their Charedi counterparts.

The Charedi world on the other hand is generally insulated from outside influences. They discourage or outright reject exposure to the outside world. They teach the most literal interpretation of the Torah they can. Most Charedim will for instance say that the world was created literally 5775 years ago and completely reject non literal interpretations of the creation story.

But how many secretly question what they have been taught? How many Charedim are in the closet about their true beliefs? When did they become non believers? And why?  How many Yeshiva type Charedim are there? How many Chasidim are there? How do they deal with their wives and children? …their parents and in-laws? Their teachers and rabbis? Their friends and colleagues?

How many Charedim are there at the Agudah convention that listen to the speeches of Charedi rabbinic and lay leaders while in their hearts they do not buy into their belief system at all? Is the guy next to you in Shul on Shabbos  swaying to silent prayer with a Talis over his head and his eyes closed in perceived concentration - really a believer? Or is he just faking it?  

These are questions that I believe the Charedi world should research. 

If this problem is – as I suspect - greater than most people believe in both the MO and Charedi world, what can be done about it? If we are losing Jews to skepticism, we must  develop a way to deal with it.

In my view there ought to be a complete overhaul of the Orthodox Jewish educational system. Not just in how to transmit ethical behavior as I mentioned yesterday, but in how to transmit religiously acceptable answers to the inevitable questions that arise in a world opened up. Because if things stay as they are this problem will only get worse.

Please do not treat this post as a forum for debate about the validity Orthodox Judaism. That is not the purpose of this post. Any attempt to do so will be deleted. The purpose of this post is to identify a problem and suggest that it is an issue that religious leaders ought to take note of.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Scaring Us Straight

Photo taken from Life in Israel
First let me applaud the community of Lakewood for promoting integrity in the workplace. There was apparently a program on this subject last Sunday night that featured 4 prominent speakers. 

This is an area that has been grossly underrepresented in the Torah world.  The focus in most Yeshivos is on the study of the Talmud… studying it in depth with all the commentaries so as to understand the sources and derivations of Halacha. Halacha that very often deals with ritual practices like the requirements for a Kosher Esrog.

What often gets lost in all of this is appropriate behavior in general society. I wish that there were more Mechanchim like Rabbi Yaakov Levi. He was my 7th and 8th grade Rebbe in Detroit’s Yeshivath Beth Yehudah. This man was the paradigm for honesty and integrity in society. I recall his habit of checking the return coin slots on public telephones when he passed them by to see if there were any unclaimed dimes. (That’s what phone calls used to cost on public telephones. Remember those?)

Most of us would have kept coins found that way. Not Rabbi Levy. Instead of keeping them, he would redeposit them into the payment slots. He felt that those coins belonged to the phone company and he wanted to assure that they would not be taken by anyone else. He did not do it because it might be a Chilul HaShem to take money from the phone company. He did it because he thought it was the right thing to do.  Those coins may have belonged to the callers whose calls did not go through. But if unclaimed, Rabbi Levi felt that they belonged to the phone company. And he wanted to make sure they got it.

Unfortunately this kind of integrity does not seem to exist today. Because of selective readings in the Gemarah; the misreading; or misunderstanding what Halacha requires of us in this area, jails have increasingly larger populations of observant Jews. It is not so rare anymore to find Kipa wearing Jews sitting in jail. The situation is so bad that organizations have arisen to deal with these people to help them navigate the penal system.

Part of this population of late consists of sex offenders. Sex offenders are basically psychopaths that cannot control their perverse sexual urges and become predators in order to satisfy them. Something that being Orthodox has nothing to do with. Sex offenders are found in all cultures and religions. It is not specifically an ‘Orthodox’ problem. It is a societal problem and beyond the scope of this post.

The rest of the ‘Frum’ prison  population  - with some exceptions (including one case of murder that I know about) are Jews that have committed white collar crimes. Like tax fraud or other illegal financial scams.

When it comes to financial dealings, now more than ever we need to do some real introspection. How is it that a religious Jew who is supposed to be of most refined character and honest to a fault ends up in prison for fraud? This is still a mystery to me. I could never understand why for example a Chasidic Rebbe thought it was OK to commit tax fraud through a money laundering scheme. Even with the most skewed reading of Halacha, there is no question about the desecration of God’s name that occurs when a prominent religious figure gets caught in a fraud.

I recall back in 2010 there was a mock ad promoting an ArtScroll book called The Laws of Incarceration.  Well, that book is now a reality. It is called Issurei HaMelech and is written in Hebrew. (It is not published by ArtScroll).

When it comes to observing ritual law, we have been well educated and tend to carefully observe them – often beyond the letter of the law. What a sad commentary on our educational system that it does not teach us how to interact with society at large. At least not with the same intensity that ritual laws are taught. Which I think is the source – at least in part – of this problem.

I’m glad that Lakewood is finally tackling it… and during the month of Elul no less. That is a good time to do it as this is the month when the gates of heaven open up for us and Teshuva (repentance) is more readily received by God.

There has been some speculation about a video presentation documenting prison life. It featured ‘interviews with members of our community that have experienced the challenges of prison life’. Rafi asked whether this was an appropriate venue for this, and wondered what this video was all about.

I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But if there is a fire, you don’t ask if now is the time to put it out. If this was a ‘Scared Straight’ video, I’m all for it. ‘Scared Straight’ was a 1978 documentary about a group of juvenile delinquents that spent 3 hours with convicts - all with life sentences at Rahway State Prison, a maximum security facility in New Jersey. (It was renamed East Jersey State Prison in 1988.) For those 3 hours those kids were harangued  by serious criminals about the life they lived in prison… where they may end up if they continued to pursue a life of crime. Those kids were literally scared into rejecting their formerly crooked ways… and becoming straight.

Of course being scared straight should not be the primary motive for having integrity in your interactions with society. That is basic Halacha. Not to mention our mandate to be an Or LaGoyim – a light unto the nations. We are supposed to be exemplars of ethical behavior, not transgressors of it. But, as noted - this an area of Jewish education that is under served.  Which is why there are Minyanim and Daf Yomi Shiurim in prison.  And Kosher food.  And Orthodox prisoner advocacy groups.

Unfortunately, there are too many of us that think if we can get away with it, it’s OK to cheat the system and commit financial crimes. That is a failing of the educational system. Educators have not properly transmitted these very real ethical Jewish values.

If ethical behavior has not been learned in the schools, then it has to be learned somewhere else. In the meantime scaring people straight should help stem the tide. It is sad that they are not scared straight at the idea of sinning against God. Or by the possible desecration of His name. But if they are not going to be ‘scared by God’ let them be scared by man. Hopefully at some point they will incorporate ethical behavior into their lives for the right reasons. MiToch SheLO L’Shma, Bah L’Shma.  Hopefully this will begin to reduce the Frum prison population until not a single Jew will be there for a financial crime.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Dangerous Opinion

Rav Shmuel Kamentesky
I have profound respect for Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky. He is the founding and current Rosh HaYeshiva of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia – popularly known as ‘Philly’. Philly is (for all intents and purposes) Lakewood’s high school. It is one of the most prestigious Yeshivos in the country. He is also a senior member of the Agudah Moetzes.

But Rav Shmuel (as Rav Kamenetsky is affectionately called by his Talmidim and admirers) has an even greater attribute than those impressive credentials. He is the son of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, ZTL - a certifiable Gadol whose whose common sense approach to Judaism made him one of my heroes. Which makes a recent comment by Rav Shmuel so perplexing. I cannot image his father making such a statement. From the Forward:
“I see vaccinations as the problem,” Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky told the Baltimore Jewish Times in a story published in late August. “It’s a hoax. Even the Salk [polio] vaccine is a hoax. It’s just big business.”
I’m sorry to say this but Rav Shmuel’s statement is breathtakingly shocking. To say that  polio vaccine is a hoax in an era where that disease has been virtually eradicated form the civilized world – precisely because of the public programs of mass vaccinations is simply incredulous.

Now Rav Shmuel certainly has a right to his opinion. And as mentioned above, he is a senior member of the Agudah Moetzes. Does this mean that  his statement should be seen as Daas Torah? In my view the answer is, absolutely not. This is an opinion of an individual who is in my view basically uninformed about the matter. Dangerously so. Can anyone imagine if all vaccinations were to be suspended in this country, what would happen? Dreaded childhood diseases would likely return with a vengeance.

Rav Shmuel made his statement in the context of a parent who was refused entry into a day school in Baltimore because she refused a vaccination regimen for her son. From the Baltimore Jewish Times:
R.B. encountered significant difficulties when she claimed a religious exemption at a local boys’ day school. Before her son began school, she contacted someone at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, as well as the state attorney general’s office, to inquire about Maryland’s laws regarding religious exemptions.
“They said that the school could not refuse to accept a religious exemption,” she related. “But then school started and the nurse called. She said the school didn’t accept religious exemptions…
R.B. reached out to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, founder and dean of the Talmudical Academy of Philadelphia, whose wife, Temi, speaks out against vaccinating children. The rabbi wrote a letter on R.B.’s behalf, leading to her son’s principal relenting and apologizing.
Now I can understand advocating for a parent whose child has been denied entry into a school because they refused to vaccinate their child. Although I am in favor of vaccinating children against dreaded childhood and other diseases, there is an argument to make with respect respect to the right of a parent to refuse to vaccinate their child, foolish though they may be. As long as an un-vaccinated child is not a danger to anyone, he should be allowed in the school. The fact that everyone else in the school is vaccinated, means that should an un-vaccinated child contract a disease, the other children will likely be better protected thorough their vacinations.

I should add that a parent that successfully avoids vaccinating their child may cause others to do the same. And the result can easily be what happened to Boro Park in 2013 (as noted below).

But Rav Shumel’s comments with respect to the vaccinations themselves are unnecessary to achieve that goal. And as I said a very dangerous thing for him to say. Because when Rav Shmuel speaks… a lot of people listen. Some may very well see statements like this as Daas Torah… a decisions from which they may not budge.

Making Rav Shmuel’s comments even stranger is how he supports his views with the following statement:
“There is a doctor in Chicago who doesn’t vaccinate any of his patients and they have no problem at all,” said the rabbi. 
I don’t know who this doctor is, but in my view he ought to have his medical license revoked.

To Agudah’s credit, they have somewhat disavowed Rav Shmuel’s statement by saying that Agudah  has not taken a position on this. But in my view, they should have taken a position on it – in opposition to Rav Shmuel’s statements.  Because the last time a community decided to avoid vaccinations the following happened:
A 2013 measles outbreak that sickened dozens in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Boro Park and Williamsburg was caused, in part, by ultra-Orthodox parents who had refused to vaccinate their children, according to an alert issued by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Like I said, Rav Shmuel is entitled to his opinion. And as a rabbinic leader who is a Talmid Chacham with a lifetime of hard work and achievement on behalf the Jewish community - he is certainly entitled to respect.  But in my view - clearly - his opinion on this issue is not Daas Torah by any stretch of the imagination.

I agree with Rabbi Moshe Tendler completely. Again, from the Forward:
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a senior faculty member at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school and an expert on bioethics, said that some rabbinic sources argue that rabbis should not make medical decisions. “This is an area in which medicine has made such tremendous progress for the benefit of humanity,” Tendler said. “I believe that there may very well be rabbis who agree with Kamenetsky, but they are not speaking under their authority as rabbis, they are speaking simply as uninformed laymen. “I’m hoping that Rabbi Kamenetsky was misquoted,” Tendler said.
I too hope that Rav Shmuel was misquoted. Or at least taken out of context.  But based on the quotes above, it is hard to imagine a context that would make any sense.

Please note.  Posts like this can and often do generate nasty comments about the people mentioned therein. I therefore ask all those who wish to comment on this issue - not to denigrate Rav Shmuel in any way. He is a rabbinic leader that deserves our respect. One can disagree with him even strongly as I do, but it should be done respectfully. Any comment even remotely disparaging will be deleted in its entirety.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Dress Codes and the Objectification of Women

Elena Maryles  Sztokman
Although I am not a feminist in the mold of my cousin Elana Maryles Sztokman, I understand where she is coming from. Here is what she said recently in response to the  dress code controversy in the Yeshiva of Flatbush, a coed Orthodox Yeshiva high school: 
The focus on Orthodox girls’ attire treats women like sex objects rather than people. 
The truth is that the focus on Tznius in women’s clothing does seem to indicate that woman are seen as sex objects. But only if they present themselves that way. If you think about it, those dress codes are designed to eliminate or at least minimize the natural male response to sexual stimuli. When a man sees a sexually provocative image of a woman he will naturally be prone to be aroused, unless he is pre-occupied  with something else. The Halachos of Tznius in clothing are designed to eliminate those stimuli from the public square. The less skin that shows, the less chance of being aroused.

But does Judaism really see a woman as a sex object?  No. Judaism requires men to see women as fellow human beings.  Even when they dress in a provocative fashion. That is what civilized people do. We control our impulses. We behave ourselves. The natural male response to sexual stimuli requires men to have Shmiras Einayim - to ‘guard our eyes’. In other words, the onus is upon us to ‘not gaze’ at a woman at all for purposes of pleasure. We are supposed to go to great lengths to avoid that.

I believe that Judaism’s attitude about modesty in dress shows great concern for the dignity of the woman. And to prevent seeing them as sex objects.  

So why the dress codes? Because Judaism recognizes human nature. And the nature of the male is to be aroused by erotic images. So when women are asked to help us see them as dignified human beings by minimizing their sexuality in public, I see nothing wrong with that. Just because men are obligated not to see women as sex objects, doesn’t mean that women should be free to test our resolve by dressing as provocatively as they wish. That in my view is plain common sense.

So I support Yeshiva of Flatbush in their resolve to enforce modesty standards in clothing.

The question arises, what constitutes provocative clothing? That is a very grey area that is strongly influenced by culture in which one lives. Do the standards dictated by Halacha equal those of western culture? Hardly. Nor do they reflect the standards of Muslim culture. It’s all about what one is used to seeing on a daily basis.

In Muslim countries where Burkas are the norm, a female walking in the street wearing anything less modest might be sexually arousing to the typical male of that culture.

By contrast, in western culture, a woman wearing a loose fitting top with short sleeves and a pair of slacks would not raise an eyebrow… even to someone learning in Lakewood. This typical look for an American woman nevertheless does not conform to Orthodox concepts of modesty. Those standards do not allow for slacks or short sleeves.

So, what is a Modern Orthodox school like Yeshiva of Flatbush do? They have no choice but to follow Halacha. If they are suddenly focusing on the letter of the law, I suspect that there have been violations that have entered into the realm of being sexually provocative even by American cultural standards. The last thing a coed highs school needs is their female students dressing in a provocative manner.

Now I’m sure most students never did that – even if they did not follow the letter of the law. But I would not be surprised if there were a number of students that did dress provocatively - pushing the envelop in a manner to attract boys.  Had they not, then I submit the school would not have cracked down in this way.

It’s really a shame that this is being seen as objectifying their female students. By insisting that their students dress appropriately it should be seen as a way of de-objectifying them.

Friday, September 12, 2014


Poster in Israel calling for war against the Amalkite Zionists
It always amuses me when I hear politicians saying that ISIS or any other Muslim terrorist group is not a religion. That what they do is not in any way related to the religious principles of Islam. That is the most ridiculous statement anyone can make.

Of course I understand what they really mean. They mean that mainstream Muslims do not act the way ISIS does. This is true. I will go further and say that most Muslims are as abhorred by ISIS as any normal person would be. But to say that ISIS is not motivated by religious principles is as ridiculous as saying the Crusades were not motivated by religious principles.  

ISIS wants to set up a pure Islamic state. A Caliphate, where the ruler – called a Caliph - will be a cleric with the power to enforce Sharia (Islamic) law as the law of the land. With all of the attendant consequences for violations of those laws.  Like cutting off the hands of a convicted thief.  

When a true believer believes that its ends are the equivalent of Gods ends, then all means are valid in order to achieve them. That can then justify murder and terrorism. These people are highly motivated by their religion. They believe not only in murder and terror as a means to their end. They are Moser Nefesh for them. They are willing to give up their lives for the cause. 

This is why so many of them become suicide bombers. They are doing it for Islam, the religion of peace. A peace that will endure for eternity once Islam becomes the established religion of the world. Killing even innocent Muslims in that cause is justified. They will receive their reward for their sacrifice in heaven.

These people may be condemned by mainstream Muslim clerics. But there is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that their actions are motivated by their religious beliefs. To say they are not is to deny reality. In fact these people might be the most devout and the certainly the most zealous Muslims of them all.

So when the President says that this has nothing to do with Islam, my eyes roll.

While there is absolutely no comparison in magnitude, the same can be said about people who put up Pashkevils (posters) like the one above from Rafi’s blog. The sign says some pretty vile things.It calls for going to war with enemies that have entered our camp to rip out the holiness of our youth. No we are not talking about ISIS. We are not even talking about Hamas. Who are these enemies? Why it is the Zionist entity and its murderous military. To quote Rafi: 
the pashkevil is calling on the community to come out today and battle the Zionist Amalek and chase out of the Haredi nieghborhoods all the traitors in Nahal Haredi and Shachar programs..
There are no signatures. But it claims to represent the will of great rabbinic leaders and sages. They are calling for war. Not a protest. But a war.

This ‘war’ was supposed to have taken place yesterday. I haven’t heard anything about it. It’s possible that no one actually paid any attention to it. I hope that’s the case.  But the people behind posters like this  are most likely the same ones who harass Charedi soldiers when they come into their communities. They are probably the same people that chase a religious solider out of their Shuls. They are probably the same ones who created those disgusting posters with caricatures of Charedi soldiers nefariously enticing their innocent youth into army service. 

They are probably the same people who burn dumpsters in Jerusalem every time they want to protest something they don’t like about the government. They are probably the same ones who spit on reporters, throw rocks at cars on Shabbos, or at women whose level of modesty does not measure up to their standards – even if they are children as young as 8 years of age. Or that beat up women who sit in the unofficial men’s section of a bus

There are those who say that these people have nothing to do with Judaism. Charedi or otherwise That they are hooligans looking for mischief. That they are the outcasts of the Jewish world with lots of time on their hands. That they are people with no real Jewish values.

That is for the most part, probably true.  Except for the last part. They most definitely do have Jewish values.  It is those values that they are acting upon. That they may be doing so in inappropriate even condemnable ways. But does not take away the fact that they are doing it for God. They are fighting the evils of the army; he evils of Zionism; the evils of the lack of Tznius; or what have you. They are true believers, just like the Muslims of ISIS.

Just to be clear. I am in no way equating the Jewish miscreants with the terrorists of ISIS. The magnitude of difference is so huge that any comparison of one group to the other is ludicrous. As bad as these Jewish miscreants are, they do not line up people next to a ditch and mow them down with gunfire. They do not behead innocent journalists. But in terms of what motivates them, they are no different than ISIS. 

Of course virtually every Jewish religious leader condemns them. Including Charedi ones. But all too often – that condemnation comes with a ‘but’.  The ‘but’ being that their motives are just. That is clear from the rhetoric of many of those leaders themselves. 

Mainstream rabbinic leaders have indeed said some pretty vile things about the army even while they were at war in Gaza. Much the same as these posters.  That these people act on them in disgusting ways is sourced in exactly the same feelings of those rabbinic leaders. So that saying that these people have nothing to do with their religion is as ridiculous as saying that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.

I think it is high time to recognize this very simple and sad fact and change the tone of Charedi opposition to the draft. And to certainly never say ‘but’ when condemning bad behavior no matter what the motives behind it are.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Is Daas Torah for Real?

There is a lot of confusion about the definition of Daas Torah. This is a relatively new term used mostly by the Charedi world. It is based on the concept of Emunas Chachamim. Faith in our sages. Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel wrote an article about it a few years ago and defined it this way: 
What Da’at Torah means, simply put, is that those most imbued with Torah-knowledge and who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes are thereby rendered particularly, indeed extraordinarily, qualified to offer an authentic Jewish perspective on matters of import to Jews – just as expert doctors are those most qualified (though still fallible, to be sure) to offer medical advice. 
It’s hard to argue with that. But is Daas Torah as expressed by such institutions as the Agudah Moetzes the only real experession of this? 

Rabbi Julius Berman has written a thoughtful  article in the current edition of Jewish Action discussing what he believes should be the guiding principles for determining what is and isn’t Daas Torah in our day.

First let us define the term. Daas Torah simply means the wisdom of the Torah. The Torah having been authored by God makes it infallible. But as Ross Perot once said about reforming Social Security, ‘The devil is in the details’.  That’s why there is a massive Talmud that discusses it. And an even more massive body of work written by Rishonim, Achronim, and Poskim – each trying to determine what exactly God wants from His people, the Jewish people. That they were - and are - all human makes them fallible. Which is why we have differences of opinion on what the Torah actually meant in many cases.

When it comes to Halacha, one needs to ‘ask the rabbi’. He is the one most qualified to answer such questions.  That there are differing opinions among qualified rabbis is OK. Each qualified rabbi - or more precisely Posek - is entitled to interpret Halacha as he understands it. So when we ask a Shaila, we can rely on his knowledge and follow his Psak. Whether it is stringent or lenient.

It is important however that we make sure that any Posek we ask, is as knowledgeable about all the details surrounding the question by either being an expert on them himself, or relying on those who are in order to get a clear understanding of what’s involved. There are unfortunately some Poskim who make decisions based on insufficient information or a misunderstanding of all the facts involved. But once it is determined that a Posek truly understands what is at hand, his Psak can be relied upon.

But there are other matters that are not strictly Halacha. They are based on Hashkafa, which can sometimes produce radically different opinions. Such as whether serving in the Israeli military is a Mitzvah or an Aveira. Are we free to make our own determinations about what approach to take? Must we listen to rabbinic opinions on the matter – same as Psak Halacha?

And what about public policy decisions? Is that that strictly under the  purview of the great rabbis? Is there a difference between Daas Torah and personal opinion with respect to what a rabbinic great says?

Rabbi Berman says yes, there is. Daas Torah does matter. But he believes that there is much confusion today about what it actually is. The reason for that is because rabbinic decisions are often made without referencing whether  it is Daas Torah or strictly a personal opinion.  I think he’s right.
‘Confusion about such statements is rampant. The public needs to be able to differentiate between pesak, da’at Torah and opinion.’
He makes a suggestion that Daas Torah not only be labeled as such but should be explained. Meaning that any rabbinic decision made should include sources and an explanation. Otherwise it should not be considered anything more than an opinion and not binding in any way. I agree.

Additionally I do not agree with a policy like that of the Agudah Moetzes that does not allow dissent within its ranks to be expressed publicly. They will only express a unified view publicly allowing dissent to be expressed only during an internal debate on the issue. Dissenters must sign off on the majority view. But dissent by a rabbinic great, even if it the minority view is still Daas Torah. And I think the public has a right to know what that view is. R’ Chaim Soloveichik would not join the Agudah Moetzes when it was founded precisely that reason.

Year after year one will hear at least one speaker at an Agudah convention or banquet talks about listening to the Gedolim.  Because only they express Daas Torah. But is that the case? Is it theirs the only expression of Daas Torah?  Or are there other expressions outside the Agudah Moetzes that are Daas Torah as well? 

What about dissent within their ranks? Why not adopt Rabbi Berman’s suggestions as well? Most of all there ought to be clarity about what is Daas Torah... and what is simply an opinion. And certainly there should be clarity that Daas Torah does not belong to only one Hashkafa.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Removing the Evil from Their Midst

Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz
Clarity. That is the beauty of the fine mind of Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the Zaken Ha’ir – Chicago’s rabbinic elder.  Not only is his mind perfectly clear, he has the character to match. He is fearless in his determination to protect our daughters and see justice done. Smear campaigns by people with agendas other than the justice at hand - do not faze him. He does what is right. He stands up and tells it like it is.

This is what he has done in a letter he wrote and signed (on behalf of the Special Chicago Beis Din) to Aaron Twersky, the attorney for the four seminaries trying to get their name back; reinstate the accreditation so necessary to attract American - tuition paying - students; and restore the approval needed to receive various types of federal funding which requires compliance to its rules regarding sexual abuse. That letter has been made available to the public. Information contained therein sheds new light on this case and will be incorporated in the words below. My thanks to Yerachmiel Lopin for disseminating it on his blog.

As most people who read this blog know by now, Rabbi Schwartz is the Av Beis Din of the RCA and the Rosh Beis Din of the CRC.  He is part of the Special Beis Din here in Chicago (CBD) set up for the exclusive purpose of dealing with cases of sexual abuse. There are four prominent and highly respected Rabbonim available to serve on this Beis Din: Rav Schwartz; Agudah Moetzes member and Telshe Rosh HaYeshiva, R’ Avrohom Chaim Levin, Agudah of Illinois Dayan  and Talmid Muvhak of R’ Moshe Feinsten, Rav Shmuel Fuerst, and Rabbi Zev Cohen, Rav of Congregation Adas Yeshurun and Rosh Kollel of the Choshen Mishpat Kollel that grants its graduates the advanced Semicha given to Dayanim called ‘Yadin Yadin’.

As most people also know, this Beis Din convened over allegations that the Elimelech Meisels, owner and head of four seminaries in Israel, had ‘physical contact of a sexual nature’ with some of his students. Rav  Levin recused himself from that Beis Din because of a conflict of interest. The remaining 3 Rabbonim convened and heard testimony about sexual abuse from multiple victims. And then from Meisels himself. He admitted his guilt in writing adding additional acts some of which most likely constituted the legal definition of sexual violence. From the letter:
The Beis Din also received evidence – which included documentary proof and admissions that some staff members were (i) both aware of specific instances of misconduct and, (ii)more generally, gross violations of the norms of behavior in seminaries and enabled this behavior by failing to stop it. The disturbing facts supported by this evidence include but are not limited to, the following:
* Meisels repeatedly visited dormitories late at night, to the knowledge of certain staff.
* Meisels repeatedly took female students for car rides alone with him late at night, often to secluded destinations, to the knowledge of certain staff.
* A parent of a victim of unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature by Meisels reported the misconduct to a senior administrator, who summarily dismissed the report as false.
* Another staff member was aware of multiple instances of unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature by Meisels, but did not take action in response.
* A student reported misconduct to another senior administrator, who responded that the student should remain silent lest Meisels ruin her Shidduch prospects.
* A senior instructed others that it was forbidden to discuss Meisles’s  misconduct or believe it to be true.
* A staff member who was aware of multiple instances of unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature by Meisels instructed the victim not to tell her parents.
On July 1st Meisels agreed in writing  to relinquish financial  control of the four seminaries to appointees of an Israeli Beis Din (IBD) that had agreed to assist the CBD in implementing the Psak Din issued by them. It also agreed to a Reorganization Officer that would oversee the the reorganization of the staff.

And then all hell broke loose. The IBD did not fully implement the Psak Din. The CBD then reluctantly  published a warning to potential parents that Meisels 4 seminaries were not considered safe because of Meisels sexual abuse and  predatory behavior. Had the Psak Din been fully implemented, exposing them to undue negative publicity in this way would not have been necessary.

The CBD did so in order to avoid a cover-up of Meisels misconduct - and to avoid a cover-up of the complicity of certain staff members. There was no desire by the CBD to hurt those staff members who were innocent of any involvement.

The CBD had issued requirements for the seminaries in order for them to continue to function, which included hearing additional testimony from certain staff members. As Rav Schwartz clearly states, staff members who knew about the Meisels behavior and did nothing must be removed. They violated their most fundamental responsibility to protect their students. As Rav Schwartz so succinctly puts it:
Absent extraordinary circumstances, such persons must be removed from the seminaries, just as any reasonable person would insist on the removal of a Mashgiach who knowingly permitted a cook to serve Treif food to consumers.
Although there has been much talk (mainly from the Israeli Beis Din and their supporters) about the supposed sale of those seminaries by Meisels, it is far from certain that Meisels has relinquished all financial control. Any such control would ‘disincentivize’  teachers paid by those schools from confronting him. 

As of yet, there have been no assurances from the Israeli side that this is now the case. Until these conditions are met, the CBD will not rescind its warning and continue to recommend that Yeshiva type colleges not restore accreditation. The sale of those seminaries is dependent on contingencies that have not yet been fulfilled.

It should be obvious to all that IBD’s quick restoration of ‘Kashrus’ has not taken steps to determine which teachers and administrators enabled the abuse, protected their jobs at the expense of their students, and even tried to cover it all up. They instead granted every staff member a Chezkas Kashrus. Proclaimig them all innocent of any wrongdoing - knowing that there was evidence to the contrary.

Not knowing which teachers did or didn’t know, does not absolve them of their responsibility of finding out before giving them their OK. Their decision to restore the reputation of those schools anyway does not serve the interests of the students currently attending nor does it serve justice. Their claim that the CBD has not been forthcoming with information about the guilty parties rings hollow in the face of the evidence seen by the CBD combined with the refusal of certain staff members to testify before the CBD.

Why did they do it? Why Kasher a school where sex abuse was enabled by teachers still working there? There is only one explanation. I’ve said it before. And now more than ever -  based on conversations I’ve had with knowledgeable people -  I believe it to the reason.

The IBD are part of a system in Israel that is currently under tremendous financial stress. The structure of the Kollel system is highly (albeit not exclusively) dependent upon the income of Kollel wives. The closing of those seminaries will create untold hardship the families of the Kollel wives who teach there. Not to mention that their reputations will be ruined when people realize why those schools closed. The IBD was not about to let that happen. So instead of ‘removing the evil from its midst’ they allow it to remain in place and declared them Kosher.

Thank God the CBD is not fooled. Until they listen to the admonition from God Himself to ‘remove the evil from their midst’ those schools remain unsafe.

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz asked me to add the following addendum to this post. I am pleased to do so.

Dear Readers:

It is important to note how careful CBD was to limit collateral damage by initially speaking in subdued language hoping everyone would understand -- and only released these details at this point under duress. 

There is an extraordinarily important take-away message here, namely that people who commit wrongdoings of this nature are far, far better served to come clean right away. 

Please note that I tried to do the same in commenting on what ought to be done without mentioning names in these two posts


Just imagine how it would have been better for all parties involved had the tempered p'sak of CBD and the advice in these columns been followed.

Yakov Horowitz 

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

How Many Orthodox Jews Are Believers?

This is the logo of Reform Rabbi, Jeffrey Falick. Are there Orthodox versions of this?
I am beginning to believe that there are a lot more people who are observant that are not interested in theology in the slightest. That is the sense I have after reading the comments by observant Jews in my last post.

To my way of thinking, this is a mystery. And yet that seems to be the case. People do in fact behave in a certain manner for a variety of reasons many of which do not include matters of faith. What are those ‘variety of reasons’? That is a very good question. Rabbi Fink touched upon one of those reasons in his recent post. Which basically said that regardless of their beliefs, if someone loves what he does he will keep doing it. If not, he won’t. 

I added that while this may be true, there has to be an underlying belief in the theological principles underlying that observance. But I am starting to wonder if that is indeed true. I know it’s true for me. But am I in the minority?

One of the more surprising comments came from ‘tesyaa’ – a woman who is completely observant, but mainly because of her devotion to her ‘fundamentalist’ husband. She said that if he were to go OTD, she’s ‘outta here’. Which I assume means that she would stop being observant completely. How many people are like that, I wonder? Are there a lot of people who are only religious because it pleases their spouse? Or for other social reasons?

And how many people are there like Jay Lefkowitz – who are meticulous in their observance despite their doubts about the existence of God or the truth of classic Jewish theology?

I don’t believe that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews even think about matters of faith. Most are observant because that’s the way they were raised and continue to live in an observant environment.  But that can’t be the only reason. Can it? Doesn’t there have to be an underlying belief system to go along with that observance? Because without it what possible meaning can it have?

Is this a Modern Orthodox phenomenon or is this equally true for Charedim? Are there Charedim who will for example only eat from Hechsehrim given by the Eida HaCharedis and yet are not believers?

If this is as common as I now suspect it is, Is there any wonder why there is such a big OTD problem? If one does not have core beliefs… if one is only religious for social reasons, then there is nothing holding you back from dropping observance when your life circumstances change.  Is that what is happening?

I suppose that there is the factor of guilt. Sometimes guilt will keep you observant. But if you are not a believer what is your guilt about? Is it how your family will react to you? Is it about disappointing your parents? Is it about being ostracized by your community?

I don’t see how someone who is religious primarily for social reasons can be true to himself. How do you reconcile living a lie just to please family and friends?

I am aware of at least 2 atheists who are observant…at least where it shows. They do it because this is ‘where they live’. This is the community in which they were raised.  They are married, have children and raise them as religious Jews. They are part of their religious community. How many people are there like them? How many are hiding their atheism from their loved ones just so they can continue to be part of their community? How many do not hide it from their loved ones and continue to live together and appear to the world as though they are both believers?

I’ve always known that there are people like this. But I am beginning to wonder just how many there are. I suspect that they are a lot bigger percentage of the Orthodox world than anyone believes.

I recall 2 stories about people like this which came as a shock to me at the time. One was about a Charedi Posek in Bnei Brak who is an atheist (He no longer is - since his identity  was exposed in a Charedi Magazine article a few years ago). The other was a Modern Orthodox rabbi who loved his job and did not disclose his atheism to his congregants. In both cases they acted in accordance with their reputations as believers.

The Charedi Posek  answered Shailos based on the principles of Psak he had mastered. The MO rabbi gave sermons and served his congregation the same way. But both men were deceiving their public.  As far as I know that MO rabbi still has a pulpit and his congregants still don’t know that he is an atheist. Why did he continue to do this despite his atheism? Because he liked his job; his lifestyle; and his paycheck. How many other Poskim and congregational rabbis are there like this… who secretly believe one thing and preach another?

I have also been told that there are more than a few Avreichim in Kollelim who are not really believers, but continue to act as though they are. How many are there like that? And how fast is this problem growing?

I have decided to set up a poll on the top right margin for both Modern Orthodox Jews and Charedi Jews. I know that it is likely that one may not fit into either; or may fit into both;  or fit into variations in between. I also realize that many categories can be added that would make answers to those question more accurate. But in order to keep it simple please pick the category that most fits you. Please take a moment to pick a category. It will take less than a moment. And if you are so inclined, please explain your choice in the comments section.

I know this poll is completely unscientific. But I hope to get at some minimal level a sense of what my readership (which cuts across all Hashkafic lines) is like. It will be closed one week from today.