Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lev Tahor - Silence is Not an Option

The children of Lev Tahor - The smiles are deceiving 
I wasn’t going to do it. I tried ignoring them. But in the last issue of Ami Magazine, I am forced to revisit it. Specifically about a story its editor, Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter did on the Canadian Jewish cult, Lev Tahor. The article is so outrageous it demands a public rebuke. I wish this magazine would just fold up and go away. But it keeps on going like the energizer bunny. Only I now have more respect for that bunny than I do for this magazine.

The funny thing is I used to respect Ami. It had featured favorable articles on people I admire. Among others it included people like Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, and Rav Hershel Shachter. But it appears that this was just a tactic to gain more readers.  They may well have succeeded. But it now appears that their true colors are showing. And they ain’t pretty!

Rabbi Frankfurter decided to investigate Lev Tahor on his own. He actually went into their enclave and interviewed the ‘big man’ himself, Shlomo Helbrans (The first part of his last name is very appropriate. Because it seems like that may be where he will end up. But I digress.)

Because he actually went there and saw everything ‘first hand’ he now claims the moral authority to judge them based on his personal observations. This in contradistinction to other journalists who either do not have enough understanding about the religious practices of Charedi Jews to make fair observations - or from religious journalists who do, but have only gotten their information second hand. Normally I would say ‘good for him’. He was there.  The critics were not. Who has a better picture of the truth?

The problem is that he believed what they told him. And he believed that what he saw represented a Jewish lifestyle well within the parameters of Orthodoxy. Aside from some quirky behavior (as in their women wearing Burka style clothing – which he does not believe is a big deal) he saw a group of happy well adjusted people, children included.  Nothing like what has been reported in the press. His conclusion? The government of Quebec is interfering in the religious freedom of the Jewish people.  That this is simple Antisemitic persecution.  That because these Jews look different, they are not getting a fair shake.

He also noted that in a written statement a few Chasidic Rebbes have called upon the Jewish community to help there ‘poor persecuted souls’ out… screaming “Mesira” about anyone who helps the Canadian authorities out on this matter. So he called for his readership to step up and sent them money to aid in their defense. Based on a mass e-mail he sends out -he quickly succeeded, it appears.

So what’s wrong with all of this? Isn’t this religious persecution after all is said and done? Did those children he saw in the happiest of states purposely deceive him? Why not just leave them alone and let them ‘do their thing’?

That’s because their ‘thing’ is anything but Jewish. It is taking Judaism to harmful extremes. The fact is that these children and their parents have been brainwashed to think that acting like this is a higher service to God. Which is really nothing more than higher service to Hebrans’ ego.

Here are some of the things in Lev Tahor that pass for piety. I already mentioned the Burkas that women must wear. That is one of their lesser problems. What else is there that is so bad? One need only read what the mainstream media has described to find out. But they are not alone in reporting the truth.  For those who think the mainstream media is anti religious we can find not only a religious source but a Charedi one.

Mishpacha Magazine reported on Lev Tahor last month. The title of their article was “Hearts of Darkness” – a far more accurate description of this cult. There is literal child abuse there, Mostly psychological.

So bad is it, that after hearing expert testimony from professionals who investigated them, a Quebec court ordered 13 of these children removed from their parents’ jurisdiction and placed in foster care for 30 days. Suitable Chasidic homes were found for these children. Before this was implemented, these parents ran to another town believing they were out of the court’s jurisdiction in Ontario. Some of these even left the country fleeing to Mexico and elsewhere.  The family was returned and all of the children have been placed in foster care.

There is more. A lot more. Hebrans considers himself the second coming of the Satmar Rebbe. But he doesn’t stop there. He makes sure that he is in full control of everyone’s life  and has many practices to assure it. For example he instructs his followers  roll themselves in the snow for purification reasons. He is known to advocate flogging as a form of Teshuva. He personally arranges all marriages in his community. Often with underage girls as young as 14. He is known to isolate children from their families.

Punishments for infractions by children or include things like locking them in a basement (2 weeks for one teenage girl).  Or giving them drugs to keep them relaxed!

The Chasidm in Lev Tahor  are all undernourished. Most of the families subsist on government child allowances or donations from their families and the broader Montreal Jewish  community. They consider all chickens and their eggs Treif because of ‘genetic engineering’. They do not eat rice at al because of bugs.

There are no secular subjects at all.  Their curriculum deviates substantially from the even the most right wing Charedi norm. It includes a 20 minute recitation of a ‘mystical work’ written by Helbrans. And they study his larger work ‘Ohr HaShem’ instead of Gemarah or Mishnayos. Shachris for these elementary students takes about 4 hours  which includes one full hour of meditation.  

When parents are deemed to violate one of Helbrans’ Halachic rulings children are stripped from their parents for long periods of time– claiming they are bad influences on them.

Freedom of choice does not exist in this enclave. Their lives depend entirely on what the Rebbe decides for them.

Attempts by one couple to leave the cult are met with extreme psychological pressure. In one case the wife of a cult member wanted to leave. Helbrans told him that he would suffer in the afterlife if he did - and that he should instead divorce his wife. They stayed and were ordered  to take a regimen of vitamins and a strict  meditation regimen that included self nullification. They eventually escaped with the help of a Lubavitcher Chasid.

Mind control is part and parcel of this group’s existence. With it’s warm and accepting approach to new or potential members its attraction is quite understandable. Upon entry into the cult - there is a sense of spiritual euphoria.  

To set themselves apart from the rest of Jewry Helbrans has established these cult-like practices to sever people from the outside world. Along with those black Burkas women wear layers upon layers of undergarments;  covering legs with tights and socks at all times. They must wear shoes even in the house. The men spend hours of time listening to Helbrans expound on the mysteries of life. He makes fantastic claims like saying that he ‘killed’ Pope John-Paul II through his prayers. He makes claims of Divine knowledge in order to dictate to them how to conduct their lives.

All this only scratches the surface. The list goes on. This is what Rabbi Frankfurter wants to perpetuate. He apparently feels that anyone who looks like him and is persecuted - well it s all about Antisemitism.  (Yes the male members of this cult dress the way mainstream Chasidm do. Which is similar to the way Rabbi Frankfurter dresses.)

What about all that other stuff? He either doesn’t believe it or chalks it up to extreme but legitimate Jewish behavior well within the bounds of Halacha. And considers it an outrage that anyone would tamper with a group of pious Jews just because they are different.  

In my view the outrage ought to be directed toward him.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Is Celibacy a Realistic Option for Gay People?

David Benkof - Times of Israel
Not long ago, I recall two Orthodox Jewish gay men in the Chicago area coming out of the closet. One was married (now divorced). The other is not.

I cannot imagine the pain the families have gone through. Right or wrong - the stigma still exists. How does a wife cope with a revelation like this? How do the children cope… the parents; siblings; friends… how do they all deal with this? Can they continue to function in society without feeling that people are whispering behind their backs? I can’t honestly answer these questions. 

I do not know the people in these two Chicago cases - although I know their families. Nor do I really know any openly gay people that well. But my guess is that it isn’t easy on anyone involved. No matter how enlightened society has become - being gay is hardly an accepted lifestyle in Orthodox circles. There is still a lot of intolerance and lack of understanding about this issue. So it is a difficult thing for any mainstream family to accept.

The issue of homosexuality has been discussed here many times.  My take on it is clear. To briefly review my position - the expression ‘Love the sinner; hate the sin’ comes close. The idea being that I recognize the clear biblical prohibition against homosexual activity as spelled out in the Torah: ‘Do not lie with a man in the manner as with a woman. It is an abomination’ (Vayikra 18:22). The Torah tells us that doing so is a capital offense (Vayikra 20:13).

There is however no prohibition on being homosexual. One‘s sexual orientation is not forbidden at all - no matter what form it takes. The Torah does not speak of attractions. It speaks only of actions. Those that are forbidden and those that are required.  There is no sin in being gay. So that if someone announces that he is gay, we should have no problem with that. We are required by biblical obligation to ‘love thy neighbor’ just as much for gay people as we are for straight people.

What about those gay people who do engage in male to male sex? They violate the Torah’s severe prohibition against it. There is no question about that in my mind. All the explanations and apologetics by various well intentioned people are misguided in my view. You cannot twist your way out of such a clear cut statement in the Torah by saying for example ‘Oness Rachmana Patrei’. That a person’s sex drive forces him to do violate prohibitions - and the Torah exempts people that are psychologically ‘forced’ to sin. Such explanations make a mockery of the Torah’s unequivocal prohibition of it.

How should we deal with gay people who surely must engage in this kind of behavior? In my view we must give them the benefit of the doubt. As long as they do not promote it as a way of life, we should treat them like any other Jew who may sin behind closed doors. We are not God’s accountants. If someone sins privately - it is between him and his Maker.

For me that boils down to whether someone is discreet about his sexual behavior even as he is open about his orientation. Or whether he is an advocate for acceptance of the gay lifestyle (and for example wants society to be as accepting of that as they are of a straight lifestyle). The latter of these types of people are to be opposed since they are in effect advocates for a Torah prohibition no less that if they were advocating desecration of Shabbos as a lifestyle.

This in a nutshell is my view.  A views that I have clearly stated in the past.

The question arises - what is a gay person to do with his sex drive? The sex drive is a very powerful part of human nature. It is probably as important as eating and sleeping. The only difference being that sex can be delayed for indefinite amounts of time. But ultimately it needs to be satisfied.

If one is gay and is not attracted to the opposite sex… and can only be satisfied sexually with members of the same sex… how does he deal with that without violating a capital offense in the Torah?

This is a question that many people have grappled with from the right to the left of the Orthodox Jewish spectrum. The right wing tends to recommend reparative therapy. That – by any legitimate measure does not work and can be very harmful. It assumes that one can change his sexual orientation if the proper therapy is applied. But as has been explained in the past – it is not only very degrading – it doesn’t work. I am inclined to believe that despite those who argue in its favor. Others say that one’s sex drive can be sublimated into other activity so that he need not participate in actual gay sex.

There are those who simply say celibacy is the answer for gay men. Difficult though it may be, it possible. And things like sublimation can work towards that goal. There is no question in my mind that this is the best way to satisfy Halacha. If a gay man remains celibate – he is following Halacha.

The gay community has rejected this as an option. They say it is unreasonable if not impossible for a person to remain celibate. The sex drive will eventually overcome him and he will seek release in the only form of sex that can satisfy him.

I can certainly sympathize with this attitude. As I said above, the sex drive is part of human nature. And it is something that ultimately will not be denied. But is that true?

In an article in the Times of Israel written by David Benkof says it is not. Not only does he say it. He lives it. formerly active gay man, David has now been celibate for 10 years. In his search for understanding the religious aspects of being gay he has looked at all the various approaches to it and has found that the only way to honor the biblical command not to engage in sex with another man – is to never do it. And if someone ever does succumb to temptation - he should treat it like any other violation of a biblically forbidden act and do Teshuva. And then start over. Kind of like a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. One day at a time.

I think he’s right. And he is certainly not alone in being celibate. Catholic priests certainly are. Even though there are sex scandals in the Church where many a priest has violated their oath of celibacy, I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of priests don’t violate that oath. So it is possible and it can be done.

That said, I realize it isn’t easy to be celibate. As I said, the sex drive is part of our humanity. So I completely understand recidivism.  Human beings have human failings and sometimes are overwhelmed by the desire to sin in one area or another. And in this area, the Nisayon (test) is probably greater than in any other. 

But even if one fails, that should not be how he defines himself. No different than failing in any other area of Halacha. The goal being that we try and overcome personal challenges. And keep trying if and when we fail. Everybody has challenges in life. Each has his own. Some harder and some - not as hard. It is our obligation to work at overcoming them. And to not judge others if they fail.

I think this is the message David Benkof tries to convey. And I think it is a good one.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

In Judaism - What Does Belief Really Entail?*

We are about to enter the 7th day of Pesach. This is the date in history when our ancestors, the Bnei Yisroel, crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. The Torah tells us the Red Sea split, our ancestors walked on dry land between two standing walls of water. And the Egyptian soldiers and all their chariots drowned as they pursued them down that same path. The chariots got stuck in the mud and when the last Jew finished his trek through the sea, the two walls poured down on the Egyptians and drowned them all.

After this great miracle was witnessed, our ancestors sang the Shira (Oz Yoshir). The Shira was an expression of mixed feelings: Horror, triumph, and gratitude which overcame the Bnei Yisroel. They watched the fate of a powerful enemy as it was utterly destroyed which at one point they feared might be their own fate.

The question arises… why did the Bnei Yisroel wait until after the crossing of the Red Sea before reciting the Shira? It is of course appropriate if not required to give thanks to the Creator after experiencing such miraculous events. But why did they wait until then to do it? Did they not witness all the miracles in Egypt that led to their freedom? Why didn’t they sing the Shira upon their exit?

Additionally, Rashi in his commentary on the verse in the Shira of Zeh Keli V’Anveihu (This is my God and I will beautify Him - Shemos 15:2) – says that this is a reference to God’s appearance in  His full glory so that the people could actually point to Him with their fingers. That is followed by the following verse: ‘And Israel saw the great work which God wrought upon Egypt and the nation feared God VaYaminu (and they believed) in God and in His servant Moshe.’ (Shemos 14:31).

Why did they wait until now to believe in God. Did they not witness the 10 palgues? Furthermore there is the following.

Belief in anything is only required when something cannot experienced with any of the 5 physical senses. If the Bnei Yisroel actually beheld the Divinity, what was their need for belief?  

To answer these questions a basic distinction must be made between the miracles in Egypt and the miracle of the Red Sea. There are two Hebrew terms for salvation: Hatzalah and Yeshuah. Hatzalah refers to a passive act of salvation. The miracles of Egypt proper were a Hatzalah. The Bnei Yisroal remained completely passive as God did all the work.

At the miracle at the Red Sea on the other hand  was a Yeshuah. The Midrash tells us that the sea did not split until the Bnei Yisroel entered the water up to their nostrils. ‘And the Bnei Yisroel went into the sea upon dry land’ (Shemos 14:22). Only when our ancestors experienced the wionders of the Red Sea did they become active participants in the miracle. And thus only then could they sing Shira. Shira is appropriate only when one attains a victory. And to be a victor one must actively participate in the struggle.invloved not only an action alone – but a resulting commitment to the One who wrought the miracles!

The Jewish people became totally involved in the experience. Belief in that which one sees implies action – accepting belief, acting upon it, and being devoted to its implications and consequences.

The word ‘VaYaminu’ (and they believed) is grammatically the causative of the word ‘Uman’ – rearing. The Hebrew word for cfatsman also derives from this root. Thus the Jewish people did not merely believe, but they disciplined themselves causing themselves to become craftsmen in a spiritual sense.

Based on this understanding we can resolve an apparent contradiction with respect to God’s covenant with Abraham. ‘And he believed in God and He (God) counted it for him as righteousness.’ In other words God chose Abraham because of his belief in Him (Bereishis 15:6). And yet we find in another verse that God chose Abraham because ‘he commands of the next generation to walk in the path of God doing charity and justice in order that God might bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken to him (Beresishis 19:18).  As explained belief implies there is no contradiction. Belief is not merely accepting something as truth. It implies actively following it up with action as Abraham did by transmitting it to others.

The Gemarah in Avodah Zara (3b) tells us that in the days of Moshiach the nations of thw world will not be permitted to convert for their own convenience but that those who desire to do so will ‘put Tefillin on their heads and Tefillin on their arms’. The obvious discrepancy is that one generally puts on the the arm first and then the Tefillin of the head. But herein lies the tragedy that has overcome mankind.

The Tefillin of the head correspond to the mind. The Tefillin of the arm are worn opposite the heart and represent the sublimation of man’s base instincts to God’s will. In other religions and among the nations of the world – belief precedes consecration. A person must rectify thought before he can practice faith.

Not so in Judaism. King David wrote in Psalm 24:3-4 ‘Who may ascend the mountain of God and who may stay stand in his place of sanctity?’ He who is clean of hands and pure of heart.’  In Judaism one must first purify his deeds and his heart – and only then can he climb to the heights of understanding God – the apex of spiritual salvation. Thus belief implies not only intellectual recognition of certain fundamental notions, but a commitment to and involvement with that which one believes.

Chag Sameach

*Taken from The Warmth and the Light by Rav Ahron Soloveichik

Friday, April 18, 2014

Déjà Vu All Over Again?

Shooting victims
William Corporon and Reat Griffin Underwood
There have been a couple of anti Semitic incidents in the world  lately that may have many Jews  questioning whether we are once again in danger of anther Holocaust. In fact I have heard a lot of prominent people saying, ‘Beware! It’s 1938 all over again’.

I am not one of those. I recall a lecture given by Rebbetzin Esther Jungries saying this several years ago in response to Iran’s promises to wipe Israel off the map while pursuing nuclear weapons.  As a survivor of the Holocaust her words took on some urgency. She sounded the alarm saying that new Hitler was just around the corner in Iran. This was in 2006, 8 years ago. I was skeptical then and I am skeptical now.

One of the 2 events I am referring to took place at a Jewish Center and at an assisted living facility in Overland Park, Kansas. Frazier Glenn Cross (AKA Miller)  an avowed racist and anti Semite shot and killed 3 people. He probably assumed they were Jewish. They were not. But the government considers it a hate crime. As it should. He said ‘Heil Hitler’ as he was being transported away in a police vehicle.

Shooting victim Terri LaManno
(As an aside - my heart goes out to the friends and families that are experiencing this sudden and unexpected loss just because some violent racist anti Semite assumed they were Jews. I think I can speak for the entire Jewish community in expressing our own horror at this and our sincere condolences. From all that has been reported, the victims were fine people who were highly thought of in their communities. I cannot imagine the pain their friends and families must be going through. (Why is it always the good people that seem to suffer the most?!)

The second event is a distribution of leaflets in the Ukrainian city oDonetsk whose residents are mostly pro Russian:. From USA Today
Jews emerging from a synagogue say they were handed leaflets that ordered the city's Jews to provide a list of property they own and pay a registration fee "or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated..." 
Shades of Nazi Germany! Except that the leaders of rebel Russian sympathizers deny they had anything to do with that. They insist that Jews will be welcome citizens in their new enterprise – be it as a part of Russia or as some sort of satellite country under Russian influence. They claim these leaflets were distributed by the Ukrainian government in an attempt to make them look bad.

I don’t know if that’s true. But I tend to believe that the rebels did not initiate anything like that. They would have to be the biggest fools in the world to turn themselves into the 21st century version of Nazi Germany. And I say this knowing full well that the Ukrainians have an inglorious history with respect to the Jewsih people. I don’t think there were too many people in Europe – pre-Holocaust - that were more anti Semitic that native Ukrainians. My father lived there. He has first had experience with them. So even if there is some residual Antisemitism there now - and I believe there probably is – there is no way they would ever want to be seen as Russian speaking Nazis.

So are we now living in the 21st century version of 1938? Hardly. Joseph Aaron, publisher of the Chicago Jewish News often says in answer to the constant whining by some about all the anti-Semitism in the world - that Jews have never had it so good. We are living in unprecedented times. I agree with him. We are no more in danger of a Holocaust than we are of the sky falling. Which is what seems the alarmists among us want us to believe.

In fact the biggest problem facing Jewry in America today - is the biggest proof of our acceptance. Rampant assimilation and intermarriage is a direct result of our acceptance into general society. Jews are now in every field of endeavor in the US… from the corporate boardroom to the halls of science and academia to the news and entertainment industry. Jews can be found in high places in all areas, including the government.  

Congress is filled with far more Jews that our percentages in the population. Jews are marrying American Royalty to great acclaim – as was the case when a Jewish man married Chelsea Clinton in a mostly Jewish looking ceremony. The last three Presidents have had Jews in high places in their government including observant Jews. One (Jack Lew) as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). One (Michael Mukasey) as Attorney General. And one as the Secretary of the Treasury (Again, Jack Lew). 

The fact is that not only have the people of the United States fully accepted us into their hearts (with some notable fringe group exceptions) - it is now cool to be Jewish, I'm told. And the rest of the world has moved in that direction too. Although they have a long way to go before they catch up with the United States 

While it’s true that much of leftist academia is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause thereby being totally unsympathetic to Israel, they do not reflect popular opinion. And even among those in Academia who side with Palestinians, there are many who are not necessarily anti Semitic (although certainly some of them are). They are simply misguided about the facts and history of the situation.

Then there is the one thing I keep coming back to - which to me shows the high level of approval that the Jewish people have: Joseph Lieberman. When he was chosen as the Vice Presidential candidate by Al Gore, Gore’s 10% deficit in the polls behind candidate George Bush disappeared. When people were polled about whether Lieberman’s Sabbath observance would be a hindrance to his job if he were to become President, they gave a surprising answer. Those who were on the fence and switched to Gore did so because of Lieberman’s religiosity. They felt that a religious man in office would be a plus in his favor – making his decisions more ethical. In other words, they perceived Judaism to be an ethical religion. And as we all know Gore/Lieberman won the popular vote.

If all this is pre-Holocaust activity, I’ll take it. What about Frazier Glenn Cross and the Ukrainian Antisemites? Yes we still have to be vigilant. But to say this is 1938 pre-Holocaust  Déjà  Vu all over again (hat tip, Yogi Berra) ? No possible way!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Will It Change Anything?

This doesnt have to be the image of the future for secular and Charedi Jews 
Mishpacha Magazine has commissioned a poll to determine the real attitude by secular Jews in Israel towards Charedim. Of course they didn’t have to do that. They could have just asked me and saved the expense of a professional poll.

The results were pretty much what I would have expected them to be. But they came as a shock to the Rabbi Moshe Grylak, editor if that magazine. 

The bottom line is that as a rule secular Israelis do not hate Charedim at all. They actually have a favorable attitude to them. So much so that most feel that the IDF should fully accommodate the needs of Charedi recruits.  (And yes they do feel Charedim do not contribute enough to general society.)

A lot of her assumptions made by Charedim about secular attitudes towards them are based on rumor or anecdotal evidence.  And they have been perpetuated, by Charedi politicians and the Charedi media. Well if this survey is anywhere near accurate, those myths have been exploded.

None of this is surprising to me. There have been other polls that suggested these results.  Like the fact that most secular Israelis observe at least some religious rituals such as fasting on Yom Kipur. But again… it was surprising to Rabbi Grylak. Here in part was his response to this poll From Cross Currents:
“To admit the truth, we were stunned. If this poll is correct, we have been living all the time with a mistake. We were sure that the average secular Israeli despised us. Not only that, but we in the Haredi media in partnership with the Haredi politicians, spread this feeling and spoke about it over and over, all the time. And behold, this beautiful structure falls apart
Behold, it has become clear, that the truth is different: Most and close to all don’t hate. An elite minority, perhaps, hates, but this is not the lot of the majority. The majority has no interest in us at all. They don’t have hatred, they don’t have love, they are simply indifferent. We are a black hole. They pass Bnei Brak and have zero curiosity to enter its streets, our kitchens, our living rooms, or our Torah institutions.
What does this say to us and about us? Why are we not a source of inspiration? What is flawed about us in that which we are not succeeding to spread to the greater society? We must change approaches and the way we look at one another. We must stop fortifying ourselves behind mistaken walls and change paths. We must feel a sense of ‘shlichut, messengers to Israeli society….simply because this is the Jewish way: To be a model and example.”
Other’s have already commented on this. Among them was R’Yitzchok Adlerstein, and MK R’ Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid.

This is a positive development. They now know something that they did not know before. Knowledge is power. As  Rabbi Grylak indicates, the Charedi community should stop putting up walls between the secular  world and themselves. It’s time to stop being isolated and start integrating into society at large. Instead of always assuming the worst and constantly cursing the secular world… instead of being afraid of outside influences, Charedim should be trying to be a light unto the secular world. Being a light unto the nations is an important mandate. But our first priority is to be a light unto our own people.

Instead of being judgmental one should be Dan L’Kaf Zechus to a fellow Jew and not assume  he is your enemy out to spoil your children with his secular anti Torah values. Assume instead that he is actually interested in knowing more about Judaism. Even if one is not successful in bringing a fellow secular Jew closer to Mitzvah observance, the positive attitude towards them will certainly improve the relationship in positive ways. Love thy neighbor-  is not just a slogan.

Kol Yisroel Arevim Zeh LaZeh. We are all responsible for each other, both in our physical well being and our spiritual welfare. That is a mandate that Charedim have yet to live up to with respect to their secular brothers.  Rabbi Grylak has noted that the opposite has been the case. He’s right.

Insulation causes isolation. It’s ‘them’ and ‘us’ and we are worlds apart. The goal was to keep it that way by living as separately as possible. Perhaps this new poll will open a few more Charedi eyes besides those of Rabbi Grylak. And action will follow words. That would cause a sea change In Israel in the most positive of ways that would benefit everybody.  If only Charedi leaders seize this opportunity!

But I’m skeptical. Their fear of assimilation will outweigh any desire to reach out. So they will continue to advocate for less rather them more integration.

I understand the appeal of living in a totally religious environment. I must admit it is a great feeling to walk out of your house on a Shabbos and not see a single car driving by. Children play in the streets as though they were playgrounds. Shabbos mornings see people going to one Shul or another. Almost everyone is dressed up in their Shabbos clothing.

Restaurants are all Kosher. There are Shuls are all over the place with many Shiurim... the atmosphere feels totally observant. If you are a religious Jew, it is a wonderful feeling to be amongst your own. But the price for that is too high. By creating a community that is totally religious you end up ignoring fellow Jews that may in fact hunger for more Judaism than they are currently involved with.

In my view seeing a car pass by on your street on Shabbos is a small price to pay for the opportunity to get out there and reach out to a fellow Jew that otherwise may never come your way.

So even though I am pessimistic about change, I hope I am wrong. I hope this will not be a wasted opportunity. Sacrifice a little… and gain a lot. That will end up in a far better world for all of us. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why Are Women Required to Recite the Haggadah?*

In the list of 613 Mitzvos of the Torah, the Sefer HaChinuch lists Mitzvah 21 as Sipur Yitziyas Mitzrayim – the retelling of the exodus story – which we do via the Haggadah,  But then the Chinuch makes an astonishing assertion: This Mitzvah is a biblical level requirement for women. The Minchas Chinuch asks the obvious question. Is this not a Mitzvas Aseh SheHaZ’am Grama – a positive commandment that is time bound? …from which women are exempt?

The typical answer one might offer for this would be ‘SheAf Hein Hayah  B’Oso HaNes…. They too were included in the the miracle of the exodus. But that principle applies only to rabbinic enactments like hearing Megilas Esther on Purim or the drinking the Daled Kosos (the 4 cups of wine) at the Seder. It is never used to require women to observe a biblical level time bound positive commandment like Sipur Yitzias Miztrayim. Why should women then be required to do that?

The Sefer Kehilas Yaalov gives us an interesting answer. Women are required to eat Matzah on Pesach too – even though that too is a time bound positive commandment. The reason for that is as follows: Kol SheYeshna B’ Bal Tochel Chametz, Yash Na B’Kum Ochel Matzos (Pesachim - 43b). Any time a positive time bound commandment is connected to a Lav (a negative commandment – in this case ‘Do not eat Chametz) …its counterpart (in this case eating Matzah) applies. Even though a woman would ordinarily not be required to do a time bound positive commandment… when it is tied to a negative commandment she is required to observe that Mitzvah.

The Gemarah (Pesachim – 115b) tells us that Matzah is Lechem Oni. One of the definitions of Lechem Oni is something upon which many things are answered – which is in essence what Sipur Yetzias Mitzrayim is. Meaning that in order to fulfill the Mitzvah of eating Matzah properly, it must be eaten as part of Sipur Yitzias Mitzrayim – that is, saying the Haggadah. And that makes it a biblical level requirement.

*Taken from Torah L’Daas

A Happy and Kosher Pesach unto all.

The following is a list of Dvrei Torah related to Pesach featured here in the past.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Root of Our Exile – Baseless Hatred*

Pesach is the Yom Tov of Emunah. The Nesivos Shalom calls Peasch ‘The New Year of Faith’. This is why we are commanded to retell the story of our ancestors exodus from bondage in Egypt (Sipur Yitziyas Mitzrayim). It is the retelling of this story whereby Emunah instilled in the heart. On that night, the retelling of the exodus story is the foundation of belief and it the key to all miracles throughout the generations.

One of the things we say on this night is ‘Today we are here - next year we will be in the land of Israel’. And we end the Seder with the words  ‘Next year in Jerusalem’. This is an expression of our belief in the coming of the Messiah - an expression of faith about our final redemption.

The Chafetz Chaim notes in in the name of Rishonim in his famous work on Lashon Hara (gossip; evil speech) that in order to be worthy of the final redemption and the building of the 3rd Beis HaMikdash, we have to do Teshuva for the very thing that destroyed the last one – Lashon Hara and Sinas Chinam (baseless hatred).

Dealing with baseless hatred is actually a part of the Seder. R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld tells us (in the name of the Ben Ish Chai) that the 2 Tevilos (dippings) we do at the Seder (Karpas and Maror)  are a reference to the two dippings in the Torah.

The first dipping is when Yosef’s brothers sold him; took his Kesones Passim (cloak of stripes)  and dipped it in blood in order to fool their father into thinking he was attacked by wild animals and killed. They did this because of jealousy and baseless hatred.

This incident precipitated our ancestors descent into slavery in Egypt. Even though the slavery of our forefathers was foretold to our patriarch Avrahom Avinu at the Bris Bein HaBesorim, the fact that it took place in Egypt was a direct result of the sale of Yosef by his brothers. So in essence this ‘dipping’ was the beginning of our slavery.

The second dipping in the Torah is that of dipping the Ezov – bound branches of hyssop - into the blood of the sacrifice offered by a person who was cured of his Tzora’as affliction (sometimes translated as leprosy). The lowly hyssop – which grows as a low bush is used to show the lowliness of the sin a Metzora is being punished for - Lashon Hara

It is then sprinkled on to the Metzorah as part of the ‘spiritual cleansing’ he goes through after he is cured. We learn Tzora'as is the punishment for Lashon Hara - from what happened to Miriam when she spoke Lashon Hara about her brother Moshe. She was immediately afflicted with Tzora’as.  The bound hyssop is a simile for all of Klal Yisroel to be bound up together feeling extremely small and humbled about Lashon Hara and to therefore avoid falling into that trap and the trap of Sinas Chinam.

R’ Elchanan Wasserman, HY’D makes an interesting observation. Throughout Jewish history, Jews were constantly accused of blood libels. And that usually occurred around Pesach where Jews were accused of killing Christian children and using their blood for making Matzos! Something that of course had absolutely no basis in fact.  It never happened. And yet generation after generation these accusations are made. R’ Wasserman believes that this is no accident. That God in his infinite wisdom wants to repay us measure for measure about our ansecstors’ sin of selling Yosef as represented by the dipping of his cloak into blood.  

This indeed was a source of great fear among Jews throughout history who feared being accused of such a heinous crime as kidnapping Christian children for purposes of killing them and using their blood for Matzah -  always occurring around Pesach. It was God’s way of reminding us that the sin of Sinas Chinam still exists and that we should be aware of it – and its consequences. And that it is a huge impediment to our final redemption. And that we should do what we can to rid ourselves of it.

Let us once and for all rid ourselves of the baseless hatred we may have for a fellow Jew - no matter how different they are from us! 

With this Zechus may we merit the coming of the Messiah speedily and in our day. L'Shana HaBa B'Yerushalyim.

* Adapted from Ateres Dudaim by Rabbi Dovid Zucker, Rosh Kollel of the Chicago Community Kollel 

Belatedly - A Wrong Has Been Righted

R' Aharon Kotler,ZTL - founder and RY of BMG
A source close to Rabbi S has informed me that he has been restored to his former position in Lakewood Yeshiva (Beth Medrash Govoha - BMG).

For those who don’t recall, Rabbi S was a Rosh Chabura (senior Talmud lecturer) and Bochein  (admissions - test administrator) in Lakewood.  His son was sexually molested by his Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Kolko, at the school he attended. Rabbi S followed the Charedi protocol of reporting the abuse to the rabbis in his community who deal with these things. He did not go to the police first. Those rabbis examined the case and determined that there was enough evidence (I believe he admitted it) to require Kolko to get counseling. Rabbi S was assured that this would continue and that the Rebbe would no longer be allowed to teach children.

Kolko went to a couple of sessions, and then reneged on his promise and quit. If I recall correctly he also continued teaching young students apparently without any rabbinic objection. When Rabbi S found out that Kolko quit his therapy - he went immediately to the police and reported the molestation.

All hell then broke loose. Rabbi S was vilified by many of the Charedi Askanim (community activists) in Lakewood. Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah VoDaath got involved in an ongoing smear campaign implying (in writing) that it was Rabbi S, not Kolko, that molested his own son! The constant harassment caused him to leave Lakewood. He relocated to Midwestern city where he continued disseminating Torah to great acclaim.

Meanwhile Rabbi Kolko faced trial, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years behind bars.  There were mea culpas by some of those Askanim who then realized they were wrong; that Rabbi S was right all along. I remember one particularly poignant letter that was made public. An activist made a profound apology - begging Rabbi S for forgiveness. I should note that Rabbi Belsky was not among those expressing any regret. He maintained Kolko’s innocence even after his conviction.

At about that time I made a public plea to the Roshei Yeshiva of Lakewood to give Rabbi S his old job back… that justice demanded that. I was told at the time that Lakewood Mashgiach, Rav Matisyahu Salomon was extremely upset and regretted  his own part in what happened to Rabbi S. Nonetheless nothing happened.

I should add that to his credit and despite his pain, Rabbi S did not want to hurt Lakewood Yeshiva by making noises about returning. He believed it was still a great Makom Torah and the last thing he wanted to do was to hurt it. When I inquired if I should proceed with a campaign to get him his job back, I was told that Rabbi S appreciated my concern but that he did not want to do that.

That was in October of last year. Now, 6 months later it happened. Better late than never, I suppose. I don’t know if any apologies were made – privately or publicly, but that too would have been the right thing to do. I can’t imagine the pain and embarrassment he and his family must have felt going through such an ordeal. To say nothing of what his son’s molestation has done to the family.

Why did it take so long? My source speculated that based on his knowledge about how the Lakewood community operates - that there were two competing forces pressuring the Roshei Yeshiva there.

On the one hand were the extremists on the right (who felt that Rabbi S was a Moser). On the other hand there were those (like me) who felt a great injustice was done that needed to be corrected.  The leadership at Lakewood were themselves divided on this issue. I’m glad to see that the right side of this issue has prevailed.

But I have to ask, how can anyone who is considered a rabbinic leader today, (and I would think the Roshei Yeshiva of Lakewood would be considered rabbinic leaders) look over their shoulders to see which way the wind is blowing?! How can they not make a decision based on what’s right without thinking about what the Askanim or the public would say? If you are going to look over your shoulder to see what others might say then you are not a leader. You are a follower. And who are you following anyway?

The model of leadership in the Charedi world should be Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. Even though I have disagreed with him on occasion (most recently about the Charedi draft issue) – he is a man that does not care what others think. He tells it like it is to whomever asks. No matter how unpopular his decision may be. That’s the mark of leadership. Looking over your shoulder? Not so much.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Are Orthodox Bloggers Modern Day Korachs?

Collage taken from Tablet. Note whose blog is on the laptop screen
My hat is off to Shulem Deen. His overview in Tablet Magazine of the world of Orthodox Jewish bloggers is quite thorough. I have dealt with the issue of Orthodox Jewish blogs in the past. Several times.  As Shulem points out the Orthodox blogging world is as broad based as Orthodoxy itself. Well almost as broad. The extreme right still eschews any connection to it. There is for example no such thing as a blog or website that represents the Satmar point of view. I’m sure that’s true for just about all Chasidim with the very notable exception of Chabad. 

But even the Agudah point of view is represented in the blog world. They in effect eat their cake – and have it too. While officially staying off the internet in any form (they do not even have a website) - their spokesmen have their own websites and post regularly on Cross Currents. In Fact their official spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran posts there regularly. Apparently with the tacit approval of the Agudah.

What I did not know is that Cross Currents has the blessing of my 12th grade Rebbe,  Rabbi Yaakov Perlow  (also known as the Novominsker Rebbe). Rabbi Perlow also has the distinction of being the head of the Agudah Moetzes. According to the Tablet article, Rabbi Perlow not only gave his blessing to Cross Currents, he actually permitted critical comments to be posted on it – as long as they were responded to.

Now I am not for a moment claiming that Cross Currents is open to all commentary no matter how critical. They are a fully moderated site and many comments that are submitted are not posted. Nevertheless – from a Charedi point of view, this is quite daring.

I can’t say I am really all that surprised by Rabbi Perlow’s attitude here. Having attended Yeshivas Chaim Berlin under Rav Yitzchak Hutner; and having had my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik as a Rebbe there; and having attended college - receiving a degree, he is no stranger to the outside world. Additionally, his relatively long tenure at my Alma Mater, HTC exposed him to a variety of students from different backgrounds. Very few of them Charedi. So he knows what is on the mind of young people that were raised in a secular culture even as their families remained Orthodox. And in some cases those students did not even come from Orthodox backgrounds.

Now it’s true, that the issues were different then. And the differences between the right and the left – although very real, were not as wide. Or at least not as contentious. Not here in Chicago, anyway. But there were clear differences even then. Rabbi Perlow understood and respected them. (I should add that he was a great Rebbe, too!)

But contrast Rabbi Perlow’s personal approval of a blog that allows critical comments with the kind of anti blog rhetoric one hears at a typical Agudah convention. Shulem points out some of the more egregious comments.  From Tablet
According to a report inYated Ne’eman, one of the speakers, Rabbi Efraim Wachsman, declared bloggers to be “actors in the tradition of Korach, the Tziddukim, and the Maskilim,” traditional archetypes for rebellion against Torah authority. Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, a leading rabbi at Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva, reportedly called blogs “a plague” and an “insidious … poison.” 
I recall my reaction to that. Let’s just say that it wasn’t pleasant. But Gil Student did a marvelous job refuting that as well: 
Rabbi Gil Student, author of the blog Hirhurim, attended the session and was disturbed by what he heard. “They were using all this over-the-top language,” he told me, “declaring blogs to be a churban hadas [the destruction of the faith], and preventing the coming of the Messiah—or something of that nature.” Student disagrees: He believes that blogs serve an important purpose in analyzing Torah topics and the spectrum of Orthodox worldviews. “If you want to get people’s attention, you have to be where they are. If we’re not there, we lose the battle.” Student says that he sees the effects of blogs in the real world. Rabbinic figures with whom he is in touch will often mention things he wrote on his blog, even when they disagree. “There’s cross-pollination,” he said. “Ideas are moving.” 
I am not a modern day Korach (the rebel Levite of the Torah who defied Moshe’s authority and was summarily swallowed up into the earth - losing his portion in the world to come). Despite Rabbi Wachsman’s insinuation that this is what Orthodox Jewish bloggers are. Nor am I any of the other pejoratives used by Rabbi Wachsman and other rabbinic figures. 

I have also been told by people who are close to the Agudah Moetzes, that they did not mean me, when they excoriated Orthodox bloggers. I am grateful for that. But I am still upset by the kind of rhetoric used by Rabbi Wachmasn who indiscriminately blasted all Orthodox bloggers - labeling them all ‘Korachs’.  And he is not alone. There are many other Orthodox personalities of similar and lesser stature that have the same derogatory attitudes towards Orthodox bloggers.

I am however grateful that Rabbi Perlow is not one of them. Although I realize that he does oppose the ones that insult rabbinc leaders. Can't really blame him for that. I always greet him when he comes to Chicago and he is glad to see me… remembering me from my student days at HTC.

The bottom line here is that communicating via the internet is no longer just a fun way to pass time. It has become so huge, that all other forms of communication have been negatively affected by it. Increasingly the internet is becoming the primary source for information of all kinds. And the fastest. 

It has via blogs like mine brought up important issues of the day – and exposes the thoughts of readers via the commenting system in unprecedented ways. There has never been  a way to take the pulse of the people – especially Orthodox Jews – the way the internet does. It is instant. And it is raw. Blogs let you know what the people are really thinking. Before blogs, all dissent was kept to oneself for fear of being ostracized. 

Now dissent is heard all day long on blogs like mine. What better way to take the pulse of the people. Until blogs, communications were done one way. Agudah had speakers that spoke the party line, the audience applauded, and everybody went home. Their conventions still do this. But now the internet is allowing their audience to respond and to say what they really think. This is one of the purposes of my blog. Which is why I allow comments that are critical of me. Sometimes very strongly.

Rabbi Adlerstein is right. He was interviewed in that article and said that the so called Slifkin affair was a watershed moment in modern day Jewish history. A critical turning point in how Orthodoxy functions. It is no longer the case that Orthodox Jewish leadership can assume to just speak and people will listen without question. People now have the opportunity to question. And to be heard. If I had to pick the one benefit of Orthodox blogs that is the most important, it is that nothing gets by without scrutiny anymore. Whether it’s covering up sex abuse, or questioning the literal interpretation of the Torah about the origins of the universe.

We can thank Rabbi Natan Slifkin for that. Although he paid a heavy price for it by having his books banned, that opened up the Torah world to the light of day. A light that can examine every doctrinal detail and pass judgment on whether these doctrines are still valid to the modern educated mind. A world that can offer alternatives to those doctrines that are just as valid Halachicly and Hashkaificly.

I think Rabbi Perlow understands this and it is why he supports a blog like Cross Currents. And why he does not consider my blog to be the work of a Korach.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

We Are Healthy Men!

Typical street scene in Ramat Bet Shemesh B
I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt. The residents Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet (RBS B) are probably just as appalled as I am – or as any decent human being would be - at  what happened a couple of weeks ago to a woman waiting for a bus in  that suburb. As an observant Jew - she was dressed modestly by Halachic standards. But probably not by that community’s extreme standards. A male resident of that suburb approached that woman  put his face right in front of hers and shouted “Slut! You weaken men!”

This frightened her and she screamed. Here is what happened next. From the Forward
She called the police for assistance on her cellphone, as he turned away and crossed the street. But when he saw she was calling for help, it infuriated him anew. “As I was talking to the police, he saw what I was doing and he turned around and crossed the street back to me, running towards me at a crazy pace right in the middle of the traffic - he didn’t care about the cars on the street. He pulled my hair, knocked me to the ground, pulled off my head covering, and kept shouting “Get out of here!” with horrific screams. My daughter saw the whole thing and was crying as I yelling “Leave me alone, help me, call the police!” 
This man is obviously very sick. He is no doubt obsessed with sex and the slightest provocation along these lines sets him off. His reaction to his own sexual  stirrings caused him to lose his temper. And he uncontrollably beat up the source of those stirrings. In fact saying he is sick is an understatement.

There are two things to be said here. The first one is mentioned by the victim herself. As she was being pummeled - people who saw it – did nothing. A woman was being mercilessly beaten by a man, screaming for help or to call the police - and no one did anything. I don’t know how anyone with any sense of compassion could watch something like this happen right in front of them without acting immediately to help her in some way… or at least to call the police.

Unfortunately this problem does not only exist in this community. It happens all over the world. I’ve heard it all before. People see something like this and freeze. I don’t understand it. Is it fear? Even if so, why not at least call the police?

On the other hand - was there an extra factor in this case? I wonder if it were one of their own female residents being attacked by a secular Jew, would they have just stood by, too? But… I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they are no different than the average man in the street anywhere in the world. Many people - Jews and gentiles alike - just freeze when they see violence being done by one person against another.

But as God’s chosen people - shouldn’t a Jew be better than anyone else? These fine religious Jews who observe the most minute details of Halacha have apparently not inherited the Jewish trait of compassion from their ancestor Abraham. Nor do they understand the Torah’s admonition of Lo Sa’amod Al Dam Re’eacha  (Vayikra 19:16). Do not stand idly by while your friend’s blood is being spilled.

There is another thing in my view that is even more problematic. It is the way this community is educated in matters of sex. The extremes they go to in order to avoid being sexually aroused (and thus sinning) has caused them to put up many fences. The result of that is that even the most normal interaction between a man and a woman causes sexual stirrings in the minds of their men. When one is used to seeing only women that are fully covered from the neck down with loose fitting clothing, and their hair fully covered as well, then the sight of a woman who might ordinarily be quite modestly dressed according to Halacha might cause people who are not used to that - to see it as provocative.

I don’t think this is an anomaly among the residents of RBS B. I think this is their norm. The vast majority of them are transplantees from Meah Shearim. This is the place that is famous for occasionally throwing rocks (or worse) at women who do not dress in accordance with their modesty standards. 

I recall the reaction a few years ago of the community to the harassment (by extremist RBS B zealots) of Na’amah  Margolese, a 7 year old girl on her way to a Religious Zionist school bordering their neighborhood. Though generally expressing mild disapproval of what happened - they were nevertheless sympathetic to the motives behind the harassment. ‘We are healthy men’ said one of them in an interview. We do not want to be subjected to such immodesty in our community.

Healthy men?  They are aroused by a six year old girl? If that’s the case, then the ‘healthy’ men of RBS B are pedophiles! At least that would be the logical conclusion here.

Now I’m sure the vast majority of that community are not pedophiles – including the fellow in the interview. But it should not escape anyone what they consider titillating. I think the expression ‘You weaken men’ explains a lot. What this depraved man uttered is actually their Hashkafa.

In their desire to be holy people, this community is taught to avoid all matters even slightly sexual. If you are raised to completely avoid any contact with the opposite sex, nature has a way of compensating for this. The Libido – or sex drive - is a natural part of every human being. It is as essential to life as eating and sleeping.  If one is deprived of normal interaction with the opposite sex and avoid all matters sexual, the libido will unconsciously be ‘starved’ and will be stimulated at the slightest provocation. It’s like fasting when you’re thirsty. After a while, your thirst will overwhelm you. The longer you fast, the more you will crave water.

The way sexuality is treated in these communities is by forcing everyone to fast. And to avoid the sight or thought of ‘water’ as much as possible. Not seeing it or interacting with it in any way will hopefully keep your mind off of your ‘thirst’. But nature will nevertheless take its course. One cannot fast forever. And the sight of plain water will make you want it badly.

Now I’m not telling anyone how to lead their lives. But when the extremes of one group start impacting negatively on another, my tolerance ends. The fellow who beat up that woman is a victim of such starvation. Even though his violent reaction was abhorrent and criminal by any standard, it should not be lost on anyone that what precipitated his behavior was a reaction to his own sexuality. A sexuality that is ingrained in them via a faulty approach to the opposite sex.