Thursday, October 02, 2014

It Takes a Village

How should we react to someone who has gone OTD? I’m talking about someone who went OTD in a big way. Rejecting not only Halachic observance, but becoming completely antisocial. How should we as an observant society treat them?

Much has been written about the importance of parents in this regard. ...that they must keep the lines of communication open with such children and more importantly - show them unconditional love no matter how far they have fallen. In far too many cases parents see their children as extensions of themselves. And that can end up in rejection. In such cases a child is seen as littleg more than an ornament - there to make a parent look good. Parents like this may discipline an OTD child be saying something like, ‘How dare you embarrass me with your behavior?!’ For such parents it’s all about themselves.  I think most people recognize that this attitude is a major contributor to a child going OTD or worse.

It’s difficult to know just how many parents are like this. I should hasten to add that there are many reasons a child goes OTD unrelated to a dysfunctional family or the parent/child relationship. Among them being a victim of sex abuse and the way he or she is treated afterward by their community. It also can happen to the best of families where parents have exemplary parenting skills - and are among the finest and most ethical members of their community. But I think it s safe to say that a significant number of OTD children are the direct result of dysfunctional parenting.

But what about the rest of us? What ever the reasons for going OTD are (and I've only scratched the surface) we need to deal with the here and now. Perhaps as individuals we can’t do anything about a dysfunctional parent. But once a child is so dejected that he starts exhibiting anti-social  behavior - is there anything we can do? I think there is. And no one expresses it better than Rabbi Yakov Horowitz. Here is what he says in a recent post
Many of the kids my colleagues and I work with all year long return to their own Shul for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – even though they may no longer be observant. Often, their dress and overall appearance are at odds with the standards of the community and they may be tentatively standing at the outer edge of our Shuls – literally and figuratively. 
On their behalf, I humbly appeal to you to reach out to them warmly and welcome them back.
Please don’t comment on their appearance or how long they have been away. Sadly, so many of the kids tell me that well-intentioned, decent people ‘kibbitz with them about the length of their absence, or the clothing they are wearing – and how deeply they are hurt by that. 
Don’t misread their discomfort as disrespect, or their tentativeness as a lack of commitment. Just walk over to them and say, “It’s so nice to see you.” Give them a warm, welcoming and genuine smile. Invite them to sit next to you – and permit them the space to turn down your invitation. I assure you that whether or not they accept it; they will be grateful to you for your unconditional acceptance. 
The key here is sincerity. One cannot not fake it. And must not. I believe it is imperative to be genuine. And to express a warm and welcoming approach toward our wayward youth.

Even in the best of circumstance where parents do he right thing. And they are truly there for their children. We must be there for them too. With the unconditional love. That is what it takes.  If there is any hope of bringing them back as functioning members of the Jewish community - or any community - it is going to require non judgmental community acceptance as well. 

There is no better time to show that than when these children are at the lowest point in their lives. We have to assure them that we are accepting of them just the way they are. If we do that, and they see, a warm and accepting a community to comeback to, there is much better chance for them to each lead a better life. And even if they don’t fully come back, the warmth we show them now will surely do a lot more good than rejection will.

So if see someone like that in your Shul this Yom Kippur, welcome them gently and warmly. And mean it.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Kipa Versus Yarmulke

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman (seen here with his  son Rabbi Ilan Feldman)
Former Tradition Magazine editor, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman is one of my favorite writers. I tend to agree with him on most issues. At the same time, I find myself often differing with the views of his brother, Ner Israel Rosh HaYeshiva Rav Aharon Feldman. I guess being brothers does not mean thinking alike. But I digress

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman has written a very clever article in a recent edition of Mishpacha Magazine (unavailable online) that illustrates the Hashkafos of - and differences between Centrists (like me) and Charedim.  It is written as a dialogue between a Kipa Seruga (KS) and a Black Yarmulke (BY). I think he hit the nail directly on the head.

I thought it might be helpful to see these two Kipot/Yarmulkes as protagonists in Bet Shemesh. Since this article is not available online, I will try and paraphrase it best I can.

(BY) I have never seen such a colorful yarmulke. Pretty, but isn’t black good enough?

(KS) I am showing the Judaism is multi hued consisting of many cultures and traditions but nevertheless united by our belief in God and Torah. Why are you so black? Is there no joy in your Hashkafa?

(BY) Of course there is. It is so stated in Tehilim(100:2) and our daily prayers. A Navi couldn’t prophecy unless they were in a state of joy! But I don’t believe in wearing my religion on my sleeve… or on my head. A Yarmulke is not a fashion statement. Also, we are not monolithic. There are many shades of black. What about those knitted Kipas that are the size of a postage stamp?

(KS) Our Kipas are designed to stand out as a matter of pride, not to blend in with our hair. But I do admit that the tiny ones are a bit insufficient.

(BY) Sometimes I get the impression that you are too willing to compromise with the outside world. Yes, your wearing a Kipa is important. But it does not separate you enough from the outside world. It makes your version of Judaism – Judaism- Lite! It says we are different – but not that different. Colroful Kipas are attractive and friendly - beckoning assimilation. Our black ones make another kind of statement: That we are completely separate and NOT part of your world.

(KS) True, we consider ourselves to be part of society, although of course we follow Torah guidelines. But we live in a wider world and do not totally reject it. There are many good things in that world: art, music, and science for example. Rembrandt, Beethoven and Einstein are all part of God’s world. Being a learned Jew means knowing what to accept from that world and what to reject. That’s why we include secular studies in our schools. It is important to be aware of how the world functions.

(BY) Ah… but that world with its science and mathematics that exemplified Germany did not prevent the brutalities of so called human beings that annihilated six million of their fellow human beings while listening to Bach right outside the crematoria. What good is all that beauty and philosophy if it can tolerate that?  And look at society today – perverting the basic moral standards of humanity. Is this what you want your children to imbibe? We proudly reject the assumptions of modernity. Do you tolerate it or do you embrace it?

(KS) We teach our children what to accept and what to reject. But we do not totally insulate ourselves. Your blackness represents the desire to be insulated. We join you in your belief in God, in Torah learning, and in observance. But we cannot join you in your rejection of the outside world. We want to retain our Jewish uniqueness. But at the same time learn to live as a full Jew in the world.

(BY) Your path is strewn with obstacles. Try not to trip. Let us each go our won way and serve God in reverence and joy until the end of days. In the meantime watch your Kipa. It gets windy and your hair clip is loose.

(KS) We both face obstacles. Hopefully God will redeem us from all stumbling blocks. By the way, be careful. The color black shows every speck of dust…

Epilogue: Having finished their conversation they went on their respective ways. But they agreed as they gazed at the sky on the value, importance, and God given miracle of the latest Kipa, the Kipat HaBarzel otherwise known as the Iron Dome.

While this discussion was imaginary, wouldn’t it be nice if it would really happen? And what better place is there for it to happen than Ramat Bet Shemesh.?


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An Unrealistic Moral Alternative

Ann B. Davis as Alice Wilson on The Brady Bunch 
Jewish Press columnist Elliot Resnick has written a thoughtful article in a conservative publication called Truth Revolt. He suggests a way to combat the immorality that has inundated our world today. I agree that it’s there and difficult to combat. I do not envy the job parents have today in raising their children. When I was a parent with young children in the 70s, the sitcom Three’s Company was about the most risqué program on TV. Which by today’s standards would be gold. Reruns of The Brady Bunch was typical fare on TV.

Today, there is almost complete nudity even on some broadcast TV shows. And the language has deteriorated right along with it. Although one can always watch public television, that is a small fraction of what available on TV. It is a moral abyss.

The same thing is true with other forms of entertainment.  Theater, movies, music and periodicals glorify sex unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime in the past. And let’s not even talk about the internet which didn’t exist in the 70s.

Eliot makes the point that it is unrealistic  to completely shelter our children – and even ourselves from exposure. I agree.

In response to this, he makes what he calls a bold suggestion:  Creating an alternative American culture: 
If we conservatives are serious about traditional morality and protecting the young, we need to launch our own TV stations, found our own movie studios, start own newspapers, and write our own books.  In other words, instead of trying to influence mainstream culture – a battle we have largely lost – let’s subvert it.  
As much as I sympathize with his perspective - I have to disagree with him about the solution. I don't think his suggestion is realistic. Even if he were to be successful in creating an alternative world of entertainment in all areas that was equal in production values to what's out there now in popular culture... that culture would still be there with all its enticements and ubiquity. And it will overpower anything created in more moral tones by its sheer volume if nothing else. 

I don't know how to combat the inundation of immorality that characterizes our world today. Insularity doesn't work. And unfettered exposure is even worse.

I guess we just all have to do it the old fashioned way, with good parenting. I know it exists and is successful - difficult though it may be. Because my American children are raising their children that way. And they are doing a pretty good job.

* With this post I am off to Israel for Yom Kippur and Sukkos. In a few hours my wife and I will be airborne. Next post tomorrow from the holy land. Moderation will be limited at best until them. All flagged comments will be reviewed and approved (Or deleted. Or edited as the case may be) at that time.

Monday, September 29, 2014

‘Trust Me... I’m Frum!’

Eliyahu Weinstein (Asbury Park Press by way of the New Zealand Herald)
I really wanted to avoid a post like this during these days of awe. We should not be focusing outward. We should instead be focusing inward. But when I saw this article in the New Zealand Herald yesterday, I  felt that I had to comment and publicly condemn this major Chilul HaShem. It is too big to ignore.

The Chilul HaShem perpetrated by this Kipa wearing Jew is breathtaking. He is an embarrassment to all observant Jewry. The unmitigated Chutzpah of Eliyahu Weinstein surpasses just about anything I can recall in the Orthodox world. At least not since a Monsey butcher sold Treif meat as Kosher to religious Jews a few years ago. Weinstein’s lack of conscience rivals that of both that butcher - and Bernie Madoff. Who may as well have been his spiritual mentor.

Although the $250 million fraud he committed with his Ponzi scheme (which he was convicted of) is paltry compared with Madoff’s  $50 billion Ponzi scheme, $250 million dollars ain’t peanuts. And who were Weinstein’s victims? He duped members of his own Shul, Brooklyn's Kahal Minchas Chinuch.  

Nice.

Weinstein faces a 22 year prison sentence. That should have been enough to sober up even hardened criminals. You would think that Weinstein would think twice about ever doing something like that again. But he didn’t. Not even close. He did not waste a minute. While facing a 22 year sentence for his $250 Ponzi scheme, he dreamt up another scheme to defraud an investor, a farmer by the name of Gerald Chambers out of millions by selling him nonexistent shares of Facebook’s initial public offering( IPO). He convinced Chambers that he bought large blocks of that IPO at a discount managing to somehow get them when everyone else couldn’t.  

Can you imagine the unmitigated gall of doing something like that while awaiting sentencing on a conviction of a $250 million fraud ? It boggles the mind. Weinsten is a con-man par excellence. From the New Zealand Herald
According to the FBI, he spent a decade creating and executing a series of elaborate fraudulent investment schemes, taking advantage of his closest friends in New Jersey's ultra-orthodox Jewish community. 
Why did he do it? Well he wanted to live the good life and participate in exotic hobbies: 
Weinstein used the victims' money to amass a $6.2m watch collection, art, and $14m worth of jewellery and Judaica, or Jewish historical materials. He kept multiple passports and boasted that he could disappear at any time. 
What about Chambers’ money? 
Weinstein had used it to pay his mounting legal fees, take his home out of foreclosure, and send his children to religious school - as well as fund his own investments, including a gold deal in Africa, the court papers say. 
Paying for his legal fees?! Talk about Chutzpah!

In photos of Weinstein he is always seen with a big black Kipa that identifies him as Orthodox. Which of course makes the Chilul HaShem enormous! I’m sure that Weinstein used his Yarmulke and his overall religious appearance to generate trust.

I don’t usually advocate that anyone take off his Kipa,  I wear one proudly. But in Mr. Weinstein’s case I would not only suggest he take it off. I would forbid him from ever wearing one again if I had it in my power to do so.

While anyone can do Teshuva, I think that Eliyahu Weinstein has demonstrated that he could not care less about what he did, who he did it to, or what kind of Chilul HaShem he made. Not to mention the fact that Teshuva requires him to ask forgiveness from the people he cheated. I doubt that he is even capable of that. He is a narcissist and a sociopath. And deserves to be shunned by all of Orthodox Jewry.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tuitions, Teachers, and Bonuses

The tuition crisis is not going away anytime soon. In fact as most people who pay tuition for their children’s  Jewish education already suspect, it will probably only get worse.

Whenever I discuss this issue with a tuition paying parent, I can feel the tension in the air. There are two groups that do not feel as impacted by the tuition crisis. The very wealthy who not only pay full tuition for their kids but donate huge sums of money to their children’s schools. The very poor who are on full or near full scholarships are not as affected by it either, although more so than the very wealthy.

It is the vast middle class that is affected. Even those with decent incomes that would normally allow them to live very comfortable lifestyles are often pressed to sacrifice some of that and pay more of their income in tuitions than parents of even substantial but lesser means. If for example one has 5 children at $15,000 per child in tuition (a conservative figure) than a full tuition bill would be $75,000 per year. So people with 6 figure incomes on partial scholarships too. But they are pressed to pay as close to full tuition as they can. One can easily see that an income of $100,000 per year will after taxes be woefully short of the ability to so.

Tuition committees operate on the principle that after certain allowance are made for basic necessities of life (e.g. mortgage payments, monthly food bills, energy and fuel costs - among many other legitimate expenses) the rest of a family’s income is considered money available for tuition up to the full tuition bill. From the school’s perspective, it’s about meeting their budget which for the most part includes paying their teachers a decent wage. You can’t blame the school for insisting that parents pay as much of their tuition bill as they can since tuition generally reflects the cost per child. And you can’t blame the parents for feeling the financial squeeze and resenting it.

One parent I spoke to recently told me that she had an opportunity to get a higher paying job that would entail more work… and she almost passed it up. She told me that as soon as the scholarship committee found out she had more income, it would all go towards her tuition bill. Which to her meant that she would be working harder with no real gain in income. I can’t really blame her.

This is the classic conundrum of Jewish education. We all want the best education for our children, and yet the truth is that we can’t really afford to pay for it.

I’ve written about this problem before. There are some things that can be done to deal with this situation.  I’ve mentioned some innovative ideas here before. Like Dr. Yosef Walder’s idea to hire a top teacher in a given subject, pay them well and let all the day schools share him. Or something like Chicago’s Kehilla fund, where the religious community contributes a monthly amount (in amounts ranging from $5 per month to $500 per month) to a general fund to be distributed equally on a per capita basis to the teachers. (Another Walder idea). Or the Chicago Jewish Federation’s endowment fund for education, where Jewish philanthropists donate huge sums of money that will be invested and whose profits will be distributed to the schools.

Every once in while something unexpected  happens on the financial side of Jewish education that warms the heart. Just before Rosh Hashana, an anonymous philanthropist donated a half million dollars to be distributed to all teachers in the day school system. And by all, I mean not only Rebbeim and Moros, but secular studies teachers as well. Even of they weren’t Jewish. Every one got a bonus based on the number of hours per day that they teach. (I believe the average amount was $1000).

Needless to say the teachers were shocked to receive a check like that as a bonus at the beginning of the schools year. And just when they needed it the most – prior to the holiday season. They were shocked, but happily so.

I don’t know how many schools in the country had anything comparable to this happen. But I haven’t heard of any. And even if there was something like this taking place elsewhere, how many paid their secular studies teachers as well - including the non Jewish ones?

I don’t know who this anonymous philanthropist is, But it would not surprise me if it was the very same Dr. Yosef Walder, who values secular studies and has done so much to improve them in all of the schools. He is a man of great humility and shuns the limelight. Which would explain the anonymity.

But whoever it is, as a member of the Chicago Jewish community, I want to personally thank him or her for helping to make Chicago the great city that it is.

Of course this will not solve the tuition crisis. Parents will still be pushed to pay as much as they can towards their full tuition bill. But it sure is nice to hear some good news about education in light of the dire financial  circumstances Jewish education faces.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Will We Make it to Heaven?

On this day of Erev Rosh Hashana, where Teshuva is uppermost in my mind, I am envious of the Baal Teshuva. The Gemarah says (Brachos (34b): 
B'Makom She'Baalei Teshuvah Omdim, Ein tzaddik Gamur Yachol Laamod - In the place where the Baal Teshuva stands, even the most righteous among us cannot stand. 
The truth of the matter is that we should all be Baalei Teshuva. We all need to commit to doing the will of God better than we have in the past. And stop doing the things that are against His will. It is the Baal Teshuva - someone that came from a life of non observance to observance - who is most cognizant of that fact. And as I said, I am envious of his or her lofty position on this day.

One of the most famous Tannaim - rabbis of the Mishnaic era - was a Baal Teshuva. His name was Rebbi Akiva. He was not religious and quite ignorant of Jewish law until he was 40 years old. And he became one of the most prominent and important figures of his time. There is a fascinating story about Rebbe Akiva related in the Gemarah (Chagiga). It tells us the story of Pardes (sometimes translated as paradise). Four great rabbinic figures of that time wanted to study Kabbalistic secrets about the Maaseh Merkava, the ‘chariot’ vision that the prophet Yechezkel had.  Which the sages discourage from study in any kind of depth. They entered Pardes (an exalted and pure state of mind) in order to do that. 

The story ends with one of them dying, one of them going insane, one of them becoming a heretic and one of them meriting to be strengthened by it. That person was the Baal Teshuva, Rebbe Akiva. I can’t help concluding that at least in part - the reason he came out OK while the rest did not had something to do with his lofty status as a Baal Teshuva.

The one who came out as a heretic was Elisha Ben Avuya. He was one of the brightest lights of his time. His knowledge of Torah was paralleled by few. And yet he went astray after contemplating this Kabalisltic event. The Gemarah also tells us why he was predisposed to become a heretic. One of those reasons was because he studied heteritcal works. In the light of my recent post on belief (where I was challenged by commenters who would not accept my arguments, and therefore were disposed to more heretical explanations) that is kind scary. I hope that my intent to spread more Emunah did not backfire into spreading more Kefira (heresy). May God forgive me if I did!

There are several interesting things about Elisha Ben Avuyah that pertain to this season of Teshuva. The Gemarah tells us that Elisha Ben Avuyah was so evil that a Bas Kol ( a heavenly voice) came out  and said that God would not accept his Teshuva.  That’s because his level of Torah scholarship was so high that his fall was too great. When he heard  that - he immediately went to the local prostitute. When she heard what he wanted and asked him who he was, he told her he was Elisha Ben Avuya. She couldn’t believe it about a man whose reputation in Torah was so great. So she said you must be another person. Which is what the word ‘Acher’ means.  That’s how he came to be called Acher.

But even someone as wicked as Acher, eventually made his way into Olam Haba, that’s because of his great Torah knowledge.  Elisha Ben Avuyah inherited Gehinom. In fact his gravesite elicited smoke for many years, until the great sage R’ Yochanan died. At that monet the smoke from the grave stopped. R’ Yochanan had promised that he would extract Elisha Ben Avuyah from Gehinom and bring him to his final reward for all of the Torah he studied.  

We can see from this that even the greatest heretic of Mishnaic times - a Shana U’Piresh like Elisha Ben Avuyah can inherit Heaven for his Torah.

How great was his Torah knowledge? It was great enough for Rebbe Meir, the prime student of Rebbe Akiva to follow him around and learn from him. So much so that he is often referred to as Acherim because he was found learning Torah from the heretic, Acher. What about the heresy? R’ Meir said that he took the fruit of the ‘inside’ and threw out its shell (of heresy).

The point here is that all is not lost even to someone who is now a heretic. Although a heretic like Elisha did not get to do Teshuva, other heretics can. God will accept it if it is sincere. And if Acher can eventually get his portion in Olam Haba after such a big fall, certainly those of us whose Torah knowledge doesn’t even come to his toes can.

It’s been a rough year for Klal Yisroel. This was not a summer of peace for our Israeli brethren. Three  innocent teenagers in Israel were mercilessly slaughtered. Rockets rained down upon our fellow Jews in highly populated cities and towns that had never been in range of our enemies in Gaza before. A few Isaerli civilians were killed; and soldiers died and were wounded, some seriously whiledefending our true homeland. May it be the will of God that the New Year brings to all of our people a year of peace, good health, and prosperity.

At this point, I ask Mechila from anyone I may have hurt with my words, whether intetntionally or unintentionally. Please accept my Mechila for same. May God forgive us all our sins. And may we all merit a Shana Tova Umesuka… a sweet new year.

Ksiva V’Chasima Tova

I Guessed Wrong – Corrections by the Author

Guest Post by Shmuel Winiarz

Updated on 9/29/14 by the author
Sometimes my assumptions are just plain wrong. As are my misspelling of names. This is one of those times. I received the following comment from Shmuel Winiarz, (…not Winearz as I misspelled it yesterday). He was the author of the Torah Thoughts article upon which I commented yesterday. Although I stand by my analysis of the value of such programs, I accept all of Mr. Winiarz corrections and ask that he grant me Mechila on this day before Rosh Hashana. His words follow. 

Thank you Mr. Maryles for your take on my article. We mostly concur yet allow me to make several points. You wrote "My guess is that most (if not all) of the 17 participants in this symposium never heard of R'David Zvi Hoffman". That is an inaccurate guess b/c I am pretty sure that at least 14-15 of the participants (if not more) knew who he was prior to the event.  R’ Dovid Zvi Hoffman was not actually brought up in the discussion by the presenters themselves but rather I and several others brought him up in conversations precisely about the areas he differed with with R" Hirsch and certain interesting teshuvos in Melamed Lehoil.

You do a disservice by saying "if any goes into a right wing yeshiva .... one would be hard pressed to find anyone there who would be interested in pursuing this kind of thought". Granted you are right about the majority but thre is a significant minority about which your statement is incorrect. Although Ner Yisroel and Shaar Hatorah (center-right) yeshivos were best represented at the seminar, from my own experiences many yeshiva products (though not enough) are interested in these sorts of discussions, people and ideas. 

The "yeshiva world" is not monolithic and painting it with a more nuanced brush would strengthen your arguments. R' Sholom Kamenetsky of Philadelphia Yeshiva and Ahron Kotler (CEO of  BMG, Lakewood) knew of and were supportive of the program. In law school and in other places I often find modern orthodox Jews possess a smarter-than-thou attitude towards the right-wing world in areas such as academic Jewish scholarship. I would strongly argue that such an attitude is misplaced and just wrong.

I should note that someone you are familiar with R' Avraham Kivelevitz was one of the presenters (on R' Kook) and although he is leagues ahead of me  in intellect and knowledge, the group comprised many people with a similar center-right background and interest and some level of knowledge in the world of ideas both Jewish and general.

For more information on what occurred, I am enclosing a link to an article R'Adlerstein wrote, reviewing the program http://www.cross-currents.com/...

Finally ,the most important correction of all. I do not possess Semicha but rather a J.D. and my last name is Winiarz not Winearz :)

Warmly,
Shmuel Winiarz

Addendum

I just received the following note from Mr. Winiarz and thought it should be included in the post. I would just add that his asking for Mechila was not necessary as I was not offended. But in any case I grant it if Mr. Winiarz feels he needs it. As per his request, my e-mail address is: 
hmaryles@yahoo.com

Dear Mr. Maryles,

First allow me to apologize. Now re-reading what I wrote to you (in the middle of the night) I realize that my tone was too harsh and accusatory. I am sorry and request your mechilah for that. Your original post was not a basis for needing to ask mechilah ,but if of course if you feel its necessary I am mochel. 

What happened was the Tikvah participants have a list serve and someone sent your posting to the group (which I overall liked) pointing out the R' Dovid Zvi Hoffman comment and it’s congruence with what actually occurred. Though we may not have the exact same hashkafos I believe we are kindred spirits b/c we are both passionate about Toras Hashem and believe (perhaps to different degrees) that we must and should embrace the world of ideas both in Jewish Studies and in General Studies. 

You mentioned Dr. Revel and the school named after him is one I will hopefully soon begin attending at night to pursue a M.A. in Jewish History (and not take the Revel classes discouraged by R' Schechter and R' Willig :) something I think you would approve. 

Hopefully this Tikvah seminar will have a positive influence on Klal Yisroel as does your blog (though no need to turn this into a criticism of Lakewood or the Mir, institutions that are tremendous centers of limmud hatorah and yiras shamayim) L'shem u'lisiferes. Kesivah V'chasimah Tovah and a gut gebentched yor.

P.S. We can definitely communicate more about what happened as it was a truly enjoyable and stimulating week. Is there a way I could privately send you my email address?
Warmly,


Shmuel

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The ‘Emes Ve-Emunah’ Seminar

Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921)
Torah Musings, Gil Student’s  e-magazine, features an article today by Shmuel Winearz. It describes and analyzes a recent seminar whose agenda I think reflected much of the subject matter often discussed here. In fact I could almost call it the Emes Ve-Emunah seminar.  

Here is how Rabbi Winearz described it: 
17 promising young men (average age in the late twenties) who spent significant time in yeshivos such as Ner Israel, Mir & Shaar Hatorah (and one person who took an uncommon path from Bais Hatalmud to Bar-Ilan) to spend a week immersed in non-standard Torah study, engaging with the contemporary internal and external issues that face our Torah communities. Led by R. Yitzchak Adlerstein, R. Mark Gottlieb and R. Jonathan Rosenblum, the program began each day with a presentation on the weltanschaung of various Torah thinkers, some of whom are often neglected during the standard yeshiva zman, including R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. Yisrael Salanter, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook… 
Issues including rational versus mystical approaches to Judaism, the proper role of academic Jewish studies (such as the traditionalist Wissenschaft of R’ David Zvi Hoffman) and how to relate to the non-Orthodox and gentile worlds were raised and a genuine milchamtah shel torah (Torah battles for the sake of Heaven) echoed through the Glen Cove Mansion in Long Island where the seminar was held. 
As if this were not enough, there were presentations made by non Jewish experts in various secular fields and therefore had no particular Jewish agenda. So that there expertise was not filtered through the prism of Torah per se, but absorbed by the minds of the participants who were indeed infused with Torah. This is the way it should be done.  It is the Torah U’Mada way. And it is the way that Yeshiva University runs it’s academic side. When Dr. Bernard Revel founded Yeshiva College (Yeshiva University’s progenitor) he insisted that the university be on par with the best of the secular universities. When challenged about how he could allow subjects to be taught that contained within them possible heresy, he answered that the Torah truths they learned in the morning enabled them to counter any possible heresies that might be taught in the afternoon.

Imagine for a moment what it must be like for traditional Yeshiva students to study someone Like R’ David Zvi Hoffman.  R’ Hoffman studied philosophy, history, and oriental languages and received his doctorate from a university in Pressburg.  He is also known for his attempts to refute Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis. Documentary Hypothesis posits that it ‘was derived from originally independent, parallel and complete narratives, which were subsequently combined into the current form by a series of redactors (editors)’.

Lest anyone think that R’ Hoffman was some kind of heretic or near heretic, he was actually one of the biggest rabbinic personalities of his time - known for his great piety and moral conduct.  And as if that weren’t enough he was also an original member of the Agudah Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah!  And yet by delving into subjects like bible criticism he was criticized by contemporaries like R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch – considering his work to contain heresies.

My guess is that most (if not all) of the 17 participants in this symposium never heard of R’ David Zvi Hoffman.

This is a very positive development and my hat is off to the sponsors, organizers, and participants of this event. I wish I could have been there. We need to broaden the horizons of the greater Orthodox world beyond the parameters of Modern Orthodoxy. This event seems to have been geared towards that end. And for good reason. As the author notes we live in an era where information on any subject is available at your fingertips in a matter of seconds.

The current response to this among some on the right is to try and force their constituents to collectively bury their heads in the sand. That clearly will not… and is not working. Symposia like this counters that notion and develop minds to encounter and properly deal with ‘what’s out there’. And maybe eventually bring it into the Yeshiva classroom.

Or will they? I can’t help but feeling that this kind of symposium will be looked down upon by Charedi leaders. They may very well feel that the true believers will ignore all the stuff that’s ‘out there’ and focus purely on the Torah they learn. If one  goes into any Right wing Yeshiva like Mir or Lakewood, one would be hard pressed to find anyone there who would be interested in pursuing this kind of thought.

They very well may think that such studies are a waste of time… that the future of Judaism lies with them and their own children that will never be exposed to ‘what’s out there’ and focus purely on Torah the way they do. They will assume that the Yeshivos they send their children to will ‘do their job’ and teach their children to ignore the outside world, just like thy do.

But I think the reality is that many of their children will be exposed one way or another. The ‘head in the sand’ approach may work for some of them. But it won’t work for most of them. They should follow the example of those 17 young men and promote this idea rather than discounting it, or worse, condemning it.

How will their hearts and minds be changed? I don’t know. But it would be nice to see the organizers convince the Roshei Yeshiva of the great right wing Yeshivos like Lakewood and Mir to publicly support such symposia and even participate in them. If that happens, we will have a far better future for Orthodox Judaism. A Judaism which will in the end be far more inclusive and appealing to much wider range of Jews than is currently the case.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Are We on the Eve of Destruction?

Shades of Nazi Germany
There was a song in the 60s by Barry McGuire called Eve ofDestruction. It was a protest song written in 1965, when the Viet Nam War was just beginning to heat up. These are its opening lyrics:

The eastern world it is exploding
Violence flarin', bullets loadin'
You're old enough to kill but not for votin'
You don't believe in war but whats that gun you're totin'?

And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin'

But you tell me
Over and over and over again my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve of destruction

The point being made by Mr. Mcguire is that if the Viet Nam War continued as it had, it would basically lead to World War III and nuclear annihilation. Well that is not exactly what happened. 

If we look at the world situation today, one might have the same fears. Some have in fact expressed exactly that fear. The world today faces today an enemy who would bring death and destruction on a mass scale if left to their own devices.  That group is ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). While they are relatively small in number, they have managed to spread fear across the globe with their terrorist videos of beheadings and mass murders of non Salafi Muslims. 

Those images were reminiscent of Nazis during the Holocaust. non Salafi Muslims that refused to convert were led to a mass grave with their hands tied behind their backs, told to lie down in front of graves and fired upon by a group of ISIS gunman until they were all presumed dead. Their belief system requires them to eventually do this all over the world until Salafist Islam rules the world.

This is something to contemplate as we enter the New Year in a few days. That said, I am not among those that today believe we are in the eve of destruction. But because of ISIS, there are a lot of people that do. Thankfully even our President understands the danger. Many people feel, however, that he could have prevented ISIS from achieving their goals in Iraq had he done something sooner. Just about all of his military and civilian advisers  have criticized his non interventionist foreign policy in Syria where ISIS mostly resides. Had he addressed this problem sooner we would not be in this mess.

I’m not so sure about that. His advisers said he should have armed some ragtag rebels called the pro west Free Syrian Army fighting in Syria. Had he done that ISIS would never have grown to what it is today. The President, on the other hand felt that if we armed these amateur and untrained soldiers, those arms may very well have ended up in ISIS hands. I tend to agree with him. So I’m not so sure what he could have done about this in the past. My criticism is that he pulled the troops out of Iraq too soon.

But that was then. This is now. What do we do next? Well I agree with the approach he President is taking,although I think he did not go far enough. He wants the world to join him. He has convinced many countries to do just that in various different ways. Most importantly, he has convinced Arab Regimes like Saudi Arabia and Jordan to participate… and if I understand correctly. They will actually be putting boots on the ground. This is a good thing and unprecedented.  We need religious Muslims to fight ISIS so that they cannot claim that they are fighting the infidel west… or Christian invaders.
  
But here is where I disagree. The President has made a categorical statement that no American soldier will be placed in combat. I hope that it isn’t necessary. But if it is, he better be prepared to do just that. Because if ISIS cannot be defeated without Americans in combat, then we have no alternative but to send in the troops. I know that the President ran on the promise to end the war in Iraq.  He did that. 

But he left a void that ISIS filled easily by overrunning the an unprepared (and some would say cowardly) Iraqi troops. And in the process taking over large swaths of Iraqi territory, while killing and raping innocent civilians along the way.  That was a mistake on the President’s part. He should have kept Americans in place long enough to train the Iraqi military. And to prevent the kind of ISIS takeover that happened there.

But ever the reluctant warrior he still insists that there will be no American boots on the ground there in combat. They will only be there as advisers. For me, that is a serious failing for a Commander in Chief, which in my view is the President’s primary responsibility.

We’ll see how all this plays out. But so far, Isis is not running scared. If anything they seem more emboldened.

One final point. In all of this there is no mention of Israel. They will not be a part of the international coalition put together to fight ISIS.  On the one hand, I’m happy that here will be no Jewish blood spilled in this fight. I would never advocate for Israel’s inclusion for that reason.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it have been a great step forward towards eventual peace with its Arab neighbors to have included Israel in this coalition? ISIS is after all a common enemy of both Israel and the Arab States. Especially those states that have agreed to join the coalition. 

Why has Israel not been asked to join? I think the answer is obvious. When it comes to Israel the old Arab adage of ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ does not apply. But is Israel  a bigger enemy than ISIS? At this point I’m no longer sure.

I’m sure that the President feels that Israel is still seen as an enemy of the Arabs . And that perhaps Joining forces with them would be seen like joining forces with the devil. By asking Israel to stay out of it, the President felt he has a better chance of getting the Arabs to participate.

That is sad. Had he had the courage to do so and still ask the Arabs to join a coalition that included the mightiest power in the region, they may have done so this time. ISIS is a real danger to them. It would have been amazing to see an allied force against ISIS that included both Arab nations and Israel.  That may have opened the doors to even more cooperation between Israel and the Arab States. 

But alas, it is not so. As I said, I’m glad that there will be no Israeli soldier put in danger because of this. But at the same time, it might have been worth the risk for Israel to do that in order to forge a better relationship with their Arab neighbors. I guess we’ll never know.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why I Believe - The Short Version

The 'Big Bang'
I am always reluctant to talk about matters of belief. That’s because it is one of the most difficult topics to understand and transmit properly. It also invites the skeptics to challenge everything I say and understandably argue for their views.

What I am about to discuss is not meant to open a debate with atheists or skeptics. It is only for the purpose for explaining where I come from on these matters. The following is nothing more than a seat of the pants explanation of why I believe. It should in no way be seen as an exhaustive treatise of the subject. I’m sure that there will be many elements missing.  With that in mind - here goes.

I believe in the existence of God. For me it is a simple matter of logic. Unless you say the sum total of the universe which consists of matter and energy is itself infinite (and has always existed) you must ask how it got here. The most logical answer for me is that it was created by an Infinite being that exists outside of the space time continuum of the physical universe. He existed prior to it and actually created it. God is a completely spiritual being whose nature is beyond human understanding. But there is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that the universe was created by a Infinite Spiritual Being. The we call Him God is irrelevant. The point is not his name. The point is that He exists. A rose by any other name is still a rose.

Modern philosophy has argued that there need not be a first cause. But I find that logic to be far less convincing than to believe in a Creator. To me every effect has a cause. The fact that the existence of God cannot be proven is an essential facet of belief. If God could be proven, there would be no such thing as an atheist or a skeptic. For reasons known only to God, in our day He wants us to believe in Him without conclusive proof. That is what Hester Panim means. God’s ‘face’ is hidden from us.

Now a rational thinker and logic oriented person like myself might concede that the universe has a Creator. But what about Judaism? How do we know that is the ultimate truth? That is indeed a more difficult question. There are several ways to deal with it. How, for example,  do we know that God is not the unmoved mover of Aristotle? How do we know that God is active in the universe in general and in human affairs specifically?

To the best of my knowledge, Judaism is the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. It is the one from which the two other major monotheistic faiths grew.  I have no reason to believe God changed His ‘mind’ and revealed new truths. There is only one truth. It was revealed at Sinai. I believe that the other religions are mistaken.  We know of our truth from a source that other religions consider valid: The bible. How do we know what is written therein is true?

The Kuzari argues that when you have so many witnesses to the events at  Sinai (starting with 600,000 males over 20) testifying to their children as to what they saw at Sinai … and they all say the same thing - it must have happened. Fathers will not lie to their children when they try and transmit truth. While a few might - certainly not all 600,000 of them.

There are arguments to counter this. Other religions have been around for a long time too. And transmitted their versions of truth too. But their ancestors did not witness their miracles en masse the way ours did. They had far fewer witnesses. Christianity for example had only 3 witnesses. That leaves lots of room for error.

But there is other evidence of the truth of Judaism. Not the least of which is our continued existence as a people. We have been around as a people for over 3000 years. Most of them years of persecution.  We were never a civilization of great numbers.  And since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, we have never been able to fully control our destiny as a people.

We have been exiled to foreign nations who ruled over us. And with few historic exceptions, those foreign powers were not kind to us. They persecuted us, threatened us, tortured us, tried to forcibly convert us, massacred us, and ultimately tried to wipe us all off the face of the earth during the Holocaust. And yet we are still here. And thriving. Great civilizations that have arisen and conquered the world have long since disappeared. The ideologies of the ancient Greek the Roman civilizations, are all gone and have been replaced by new ideologies. The Rome of today is not the Rome of Caesar. It is only the Jewish people and its ideologies that have survived.

Add to that the body of religious literature written by some of the finest minds in history produced over the millennia, starting with the Mishna and Talmud, and I can’t help but believe that we have the truth has been transmitted faithfully to us by these great people.

It is true that other religions have great works too. But having been raised a Jew and having studied some of these great works, I am convinced that they contain truth . I don’t not for example think that Christianity or Islam contains anything remotely resembling the Talmud.

What about contradictions between science and Torah?  I do not believe there are any real contradictions. Only perceived ones. And many of them can be reconciled. One of the more famous contradictions is the Torah narrative that indicates that the universe was created about 6000 years ago.

Scientists on the other hand believe that the universe was created about 15 billion years ago. And they have plenty of evidence to show it. But the fact is that one does not have to believe that the six days of creation are to be taken as literal days. While an explanation of this is way beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that there is precedent in the rabbinic literature spanning over 2000 years whereby one can derive that the universe is 15 billion years.

What about evolution? That too in compatible with our beliefs. Again the details are beyond the scope of this post. I believe that evolution has and is taking place. That is the way God created the universe to function. Again, the details of reconciling the Torah with evolution are beyond the scope of this post.

What about other contradictions between science and Torah? There are answers to some of those contradictions. But in some cases, there may not be answers that are satisfying. When that happens to me, I remain with the question. I believe there is a way to reconcile the contradictions – even if we haven’t found it yet. As Rav Soloveitchik once said. When one sees a contradiction that they cannot explain it is probably because they either don’t fully understand the science. Or the Torah. Or both. There is indeed a lot of Torah we do not fully understand. And there is still plenty of knowledge about the nature of the universe(which is what science studies)  that we still do not understand.

I haven’t touched upon the bible critics here. But this essay is long enough. I will only say that a literary analysis of the writing styles of various segments of the Torah which seems to show that they were written in different eras by different people are far from convincing to me. God chose to write His Torah the way He did for His own reasons.

The bottom line is that the truth of God’s existence and the truth of Judaism is based on a lot of factors some of which are logic based; some of which are historically based; some of which are intuitive; and some of which are emotional. None of them are bad reasons. And none of them are by themselves conclusive.  But when they are all combined, the evidence is overwhelming.  Although admittedly not conclusive proof beyond any doubt, I believe with complete faith that God and His Torah are true.

Warning: I just want to repeat what I said at the outset. This blog operates on a premise of belief in God and His Torah. I know that I most likely have not convinced the hardcore atheists and skeptics. But I will not allow this post to become a platform to try and refute everything I said here.  The purpose of this post is to explain why I believe… and to hopefully  help those who are struggling with these issues.