Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Fake Kashrus

Long before candidate Donald Trump ever uttered the phrase “fake news,” some of us in the Jewish world involved with media were well acquainted with the concept.

From The New York Times’ description at the time of the 1991 Crown Heights riots as “[violence] between blacks and Jews,” when Jews were entirely on the receiving end of the ugliness, to a veteran Jewish reporter’s reporting as fact Orthodox Jewish blackmailers in Brooklyn, when all she had was an anonymous phone caller’s false tip. From a news description of a large, heartfelt Tehillim rally in Manhattan as “40,000 Orthodox Jews vent[ing] anger…” to the identification of a bloodied Jewish boy in Israel as a Palestinian beaten by an Israeli policeman. From the propagation of the myth that an Arab boy victim of Palestinian fire had been killed by Israeli soldiers to ahistorical descriptions of the Makom Hamikdash. An updated list would include much of the reportage on Kosel Maaravi happenings and on heterodox leaders’ claims about American Jewry.

Then there are the more subtle layers of bias. Like the aforementioned Gray Lady’s report on the twelfth Daf Yomi Siyum Hashas in 2012, a most newsworthy event, indeed; the paper chose to focus on the fact that Orthodox women don’t traditionally study Talmud.

And then there are the misquotes and words wrenched out of context. Having served as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison for more than two decades, I have ample personal experience with that sliminess. Had I a few dollars for each time my words were misrepresented, I could put a decent dent in the tuition crisis.

The first few times I was misquoted or my words mischaracterized, I assumed I hadn’t been sufficiently clear, or that the reporters had made innocent mistakes. Eventually, though, I sobered and realized that some reporters were – sit down, please – not really interested in accuracy or truth. They were seeking, rather, some quote to plug into the article they had already written (in their heads if not their computers), on a quest to get some words from me to “massage” to fit their preconceptions.

A fresh example: Open Orthodox clergyman Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, a poster boy for the movement that ordained him, recently penned a piece for Newsweek.

After lauding himself for creating “the Tav HaYosher ethical seal to attest that kosher restaurants in North America treated their workers to the highest standards of decency and dignity,” he bemoans what he sees as a kosher certification industry “consumed with ritual detail but largely… unconcerned with… worker rights, animal welfare, environmental protection, human health, among many important ethical considerations.” And he recalls participating in a 2008 panel on kashrus at Yeshiva University.

I was on the panel too, and though Dr. Yanklowitz doesn’t identify me by name, I was the “ultra-Orthodox” spokesperson who he claims in his article implied that “people want kosher meat that tastes good and is cheap, but don’t care about the ethical route it took to the plate.”

Wondering what I said? So was I, when I saw the piece. Fortunately, at that panel, I read my speech straight from notes that night, and have the notes.

The social consciousness initiative that Dr. Yanklowitz was defending at the time was something called Hekhsher Tzedek (later renamed Magen Tzedek), a “kashrut seal” indicating that a product was not only kosher but whose production had met various workers’ rights, animal rights and environmental requirements. (Four years later, no product had received the seal, and there is no sign of it on supermarket shelves to this day.)

Since the initiative’s literature stated that the certification was intended to reflect a higher degree of kashrus, I sought to make the point that, while there are certainly valid issues of tzaar ba’alei chaim and dina dimalchusa dina by which observant food processors and producers are bound, such concerns are independent of the halachic definition of “kosher.”

“So,” I explained, “while kosher food producers are required by halachah to act ethically in every way, any lapses on that score have no effect on the kashrus of the food they produce.”

Yes, that’s it. That’s what Dr. Yanklowitz claims was a declaration that “people want kosher meat that tastes good and is cheap, but don’t care about the ethical route it took to the plate.”

And readers of Newsweek are now under the impression that Orthodox Jews are unconcerned with mistreatment of workers, animal cruelty and the environment.

In truth, Dr. Yanklowitz’s misrepresentation shouldn’t surprise me. Misrepresentation, after all – of the Jewish mesorah itself – is the very raison d’être of the movement that produced him.

© 2018 Hamodia

What is Jerusalem?

Whether one regards President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel as a dangerous and foolhardy move or wise and deeply principled, it cast a well-deserved bucket of cold water into the faces of the Arab and European worlds. But it also begged a question: What, exactly, is “Jerusalem”?

The recent history of Eretz Yisrael is well documented. After the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations, in 1922, granted the British a mandate to oversee “Palestine.” In November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved a partition plan creating two states: one Jewish and one Arab. Jerusalem, which had by then developed well beyond the walls of the Old City, would fall under international control as a Corpus Separatum, or “separate entity.”

That never happened. The Jewish Agency for Palestine accepted the partition plan; the Arabs did not. And the following year, on the very day the British Mandate ended, the Arabs invaded the Jewish community, starting a war which, to the invaders’ surprise, they decisively lost. So, in fact – and despite what many media persist in stating – the Corpus Separatum status of Jerusalem, as part of the Arab-rejected partition plan, never became reality.

When Israel declared its independence in May, 1948, the western half of the expanded city of Jerusalem became part of the nascent state, while the eastern half, purged of its Jews, along with the Old City, was occupied by Jordan. As we all know, and some of us vividly remember, during the 1967 Six Day War, Israel rebuffed Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and captured the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, Shomron and Yehudah, including the eastern part of Jerusalem and the Old City.

The Old City. The Ir Haatikah. We sometimes forget that, while Israeli law and colloquial shprach applies the name “Yerushalayim” to the greater metropolitan area outside its walls as well, the name really refers to the Old City alone.

Chanukah is coming to an end, which, to Jews who mark time Jewishly, means that the next celebration in our sights is Purim.

And hidden in Megillas Esther, as it happens, is a passuk that holds a hint well worth pondering in the context of recent events.

“Ad chatzi hamalchus,” Achashveirosh offers Esther, “up to half the kingdom” (Esther, 5:3). The Gemara (Megillah 15b) explains that Achashverosh said “up to” in order to indicate that he was not willing to offer something in the middle of the kingdom, something that would cause a political rift were he to relinquish his control over it: the Beis Hamikdash.

We optimists hope that Mr. Trump’s recent blunt statement might, in the end, push the Arab world to come to terms with reality and actually shuffle, grumbling but surely, to the negotiation table. To fantasize further, maybe Arabs in Eretz Yisrael will be brought to see the incitement and hatred they sow as counterproductive to their goal of a state alongside Israel, and desist from their regularly scheduled vilifications of Israel and Jews.

Unlikely, certainly. But, whatever our personal feelings about whether a “two-state solution” is a healthy or a noxious prospect, it is the declared goal of both Mr. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. So let’s imagine further what might emerge from such an agreement.

It really doesn’t need much imagination; the general terms of a peace agreement have long been obvious to all informed observers. Parts of Yehudah and Shomron, from which Israel’s withdrawal would not pose undue security risks, would be ceded to the Arab state. The state would be demilitarized, and pledged to abandon its hostility toward Israel.

The western part of Jerusalem would remain Israel’s capital, and the eastern part, the new state’s.

And the Old City? Oy, there’s the rub.

Would – could? – Israel cede even part of it to an Arab state? And even if it did, what about the source of the city’s kedushah, the Mekom Hamikdash?

Truth be told, Israel is not really in possession of that sacred ground even now. While she controls access to the Temple Mount, the compound is administered by the Wakf, itself controlled and funded by the Jordanian government.

That sad reality is not likely to change, not until we merit the bias go’el tzedek. Until then, though, it should be a reminder that, even were “Jerusalem” to be recognized as the capital of Israel by the entire civilized world, even by all Arab countries and a new Arab state, rejoicing would be premature. Klal Yisrael remains, l’daavoneinu, stalled in galus.

May that situation end bimheirah biyameinu.

© 2017 Hamodia

Body and Soul

It sounds like a story about the fictional Chelm. The town philosopher sagely informs his fellow citizens that he has no face. He can’t perceive it directly, he points out, and besides, as anyone can plainly see, what people claim is his face clearly resides in his mirror.

The silly scene is inspired by celebrated scientists. Like Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, who has lamented human beings’ stubborn commitment to “dualism,” the idea that people possess both physical and spiritual components. He pities those who believe that there is an “I” somehow separate from one’s body and brain.

“The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls…,” he asserts confidently, “emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”

Also enlightening the backward masses is Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who condescendingly advises people to set aside “childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas” and recognize that what we conceive of as the soul is nothing more than “the activity of the brain.”

Or, as they might say at the University of Chelm, since the soul seems perceptible only through the brain, the brain, perforce, must be the soul.  And your stereo speakers are the music.

Sometimes, though, intuitions are right and scientific dogmas wrong. Scientists, the noted British psychologist H. J. Eysenck famously observed, can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”  Some, in fact, are prone to a perilous folly: the confidence – despite the long and what-should-be chastening history of science, littered with the remains of once-coddled beliefs – that they have – eureka! – arrived at conclusive knowledge.

Were the contemporary “dualism” debate merely academic, we believing Jews might reasonably choose to ignore it. Unfortunately, though, the denial of humanity’s specialness and, perforce, of our responsibility for our choices – the unmistakable ghost in the Bloom/Pinker philosophy-machine – is of substantial import.

The idea of the  neshamah goes to the very heart of many a contemporary social issue. It influences society’s attitudes toward a host of moral concerns, from animal rights to the meaning of marriage to the treatment of the terminally ill.

In the absence of the concept of a human  neshamah, there is simply nothing to justify considering humans inherently more worthy than animals, nothing to prevent us from considering any “lifestyle” less proper than any other, nothing to prevent us from coldly ending the life of a patient in extremis. Put starkly, without affirmation of the  neshamah, society is, in the word’s deepest sense, soulless.

And the game is zero-sum: Either humans are something qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, or they are not. And a society that chooses to believe the latter is a society where no person has any reason to aspire to anything beyond self-gratification. A world in denial of the  neshamah might craft a utilitarian social contract. But right and wrong could be no more meaningful than right and left.

The notion is hardly novel, of course. Philosophical “Materialists,” believing only in the physical and bent on despiritualizing humanity’s essence were the high priests of the Age of Reason and the glory days of Communism.

And the footsteps in which they walked were those of Yavan. The ancient Greeks hallowed reason and inquiry, and celebrated the physical world. Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s circumference to within one percent; Euclid conceived and developed geometry; Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system. And the early Greeks exalted the human being – but as a physical specimen, not more.

Accordingly, the most worthwhile goal of man for the Greeks was the enjoyment of life. The words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all stem from Greek philosophical schools.

Which may be why the culture that was Yavan was so enraged by Klal Yisrael’s focus on kedushah. Shabbos denied the unstopping nature of the physical world; milah implied that the body is imperfect; kiddush hachodesh saw holiness where the Greeks saw only mundane periodicity; modesty, moreover, was unnatural.

The Greeks had their “gods,” of course, but they were diametric to holiness, modeled entirely on the worst examples of human beings. And Hellenist philosophers who spoke of a “soul” were referring only to the personality or intellect. The idea of a tzelem Elokim, of a  neshamah that can make choices and merit eternity, indispensable to the Jew, was indigestible to the Greek.

Ner Hashem nishmas adam – “The soul of man is a Divine flame” (Mishlei 20:27). When we light our Chanukah lecht, we might keep in mind how, despite the declarations of some scientists and Chelmer holdouts, Klal Yisrael overcame Yavan not only on a physical battlefield but on a conceptual one no less.

© 2017 Hamodia

Truth Is Attractive

It wasn’t a phone call the head of the Union for Reform Judaism ever wanted to get. Taglit-Birthright was calling, with bad news.

In the U.S., the “Taglit” (“discovery”) part of the name of the non-profit organization that sponsors free ten-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults is usually dropped; it is known simply as “Birthright.”

Founded in 1994 by two philanthropists, Wall Street money manager Michael Steinhardt and former Seagram Company chairman Charles R. Bronfman, Birthright is financed by them and other private donors, as well as by the Israeli government. More than 500,000 young people, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, have participated in the program to date.

The recent phone call was to inform the Reform leader that his movement was no longer authorized as a certified trip provider for Birthright. It wasn’t, the caller explained, because Birthright had anything against “progressive” Jewish groups, but rather a simple matter of the fact that the Reform movement had failed to meet participant quotas.

“We worked very hard with them to increase the numbers,” Birthright CEO Gidi Mark told an Israeli newspaper, “but unfortunately they could not meet our minimum.”

Although the overwhelming majority of Birthright participants come from non-Orthodox backgrounds – less than 5 percent are Orthodox Jews – Orthodox-affiliated trip providers, including the Chabad-connected group “Mayanot,” the Orthodox Union’s “Israel Free Spirit” and Aish Hatorah account for close to a quarter of total recruitment.

Birthright’s largest single donor these days is Republican supporter Sheldon Adelson. He is a promoter of the Israeli political right wing with regard to security issues and the Palestinians, but is not Orthodox. Messrs. Bronfman and Steinhardt say, “We are both secular Jews… we never saw Birthright Israel as a religious trip, though many alumni have changed their ritual practices.”

So why have Orthodox groups emerged as so disproportionate a conduit of young non-Orthodox Jews to Birthright trips?

Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who bemoans that fact, blames it on the Israeli government’s support for what he calls “Ultra-Orthodox campus institutions.” He also is upset that young people on Birthright trips are given the option, if they choose, to attend Orthodox services during their stay in Israel.

Reform leaders are also chagrined that, although “religious indoctrination” is prohibited on Birthright trips, the Orthodox groups also often later convince Birthright alumni to, in Rick Jacobs’ words, “explore a more traditional way of Judaism.” The horror.

Asked about Orthodox organizations’ outreach work with participants after the trips, Mr. Mark said: “We are dealing with people who are very intelligent. They are all mature people older than 18. I myself never heard any one complaint about any misuse of the relationship by our trip organizers.”

Rather than stew over the fact that nonobservant young Jews seem to gravitate to groups dedicated to “a more traditional way of Judaism” – or, put more accurately, the authentic mesorah of Klal Yisrael – Reform leaders might stop seeking culprits for that offense and consider the fact that emes, truthis attractive.

Birthright certainly has never pushed Yiddishkeit in any way, and indeed shunned anything smacking of “religious indoctrination.”

It has helped ensure Jewish continuity by helping countless Jews connect in one or another way to their religious heritage by bringing them to Israel.

But for nearly 2000 years, visiting or settling in Eretz Yisrael was not even an option for most Jews. What sustained Jewish continuity over those millennia? Precisely Rick Jacobs’ “more traditional way of Judaism” – Jewish knowledge and Jewish living.

In fact, if Birthright really wanted to maximize its bang for the buck, it might consider dropping altogether its religious rejection of religion and consider a marvelous, gutsy move. Namely, amend Birthright’s existing program to maximize the Jewish impact of the gift it offers young Diaspora Jews, by providing them, say, for two or three of their ten days, an intensive Jewish learning experience in an Israeli yeshivah, seminary or outreach program catering to Jews from overseas.

Yes, that would violate the effort’s heretofore commitment to “pluralism.” But it would be entirely in consonance with Birthright’s professed goal, helping ensure Jewish continuity.

In fact, providing Jews who were raised distant from their religious heritage the opportunity to witness what it means to live a true Jewish life would be nothing less than, well, returning to them their birthright.

© 2017 Hamodia

Veiter Simchos

My brother, a rebbe in Yeshivas Ner Yisroel’s Mechina high school, and his wife, the daughter of the legendary Menahel Rav Yosef Tendler, z”l,were recently blessed with two new grandsons. Both were named Simcha Bunim, after my father, hk”m, whose first yahrtzeit will be observed on 20 Kislev.

When I wished my brother and his wife “veiter simchos!” – “further happy occasions! – I wondered if I had inadvertently uttered a double entendre. It turns out I did. My wife and I just returned from Milwaukee, where another bris took place, as our daughter and son-in-law welcomed their new little boy to their family; he, too, is a Simcha Bunim.

I’ve been thinking, as you might imagine, about the name.

Firstly, what exactly is “Bunim”? My father always assumed that it derived from Binyamin, and there are sources that indeed assert that. But another possibility was suggested to me by a brother-in-law’s brother, Tzvi West, who thinks (very plausibly, to me) that, like many double names (e.g. Zev Wolf, Dov Ber, Aryeh Leib…), “Simcha Bunim” may be a vernacular translation added to a Hebrew one. Because, in French, bonhomme means “a good-natured man” or “a man of good cheer.”

If that theory is right, though, both names are uncannily descriptive of my father.

He was renowned for his ready, radiant smile, and over the more than sixty years he served as a shul Rav, countless congregants and strangers alike were greeted with his sever panim yafos. He was a reservoir of friendly, encouraging words for all who sought his counsel.

But simchah isn’t only an interpersonal ideal. We exist for avodas Hashem. And Dovid Hamelech reveals that our lifelong service be done with simchahivdu es Hashem bisimchah. Jewish joy occupies a very high plane indeed.

I don’t know if my father was able to embrace simchah as he fled as a young teen with his family from their Polish town before the invading Nazis in 1939, or when he saw his uncle shot dead before him, or when he and other Jews were locked in a shul that was set aflame (though I imagine he must have smiled when a German army officer – Eliyahu Hanavi, the Jews suspected – passed by and ordered the Jews released). Or if he attained moments of joy during the years he and his Novardok chaverim spent as the guests of the Soviets in a Siberian work camp. But knowing Norvardok’s stress on making the most of every moment of life, it’s entirely plausible.

What I know for fact, though, is how Simchas Torah was his Yom Tov. He rejoiced then with vigor that left anyone who witnessed it astonished. And how delighted he was during his long career to be able to provide a spiritual home for a congregation of Yidden of widely diverse backgrounds and levels of observance.

When my siblings and I were young, it didn’t occur to us that a Rav davening all the Yamim Noraim tefillos (and blowing the shofar) himself was unusual. When, eventually, he trained others to daven for the amud, he took great joy in that, too, and always happily encouraged the new baalei tefillah.

He also undertook the most menial tasks of maintaining a shul with joy. The shul had no shamash, only a rabbi who saw honor in every shul chore.

A congregant recounted seeing him in the shul perched on a 20-foot ladder, changing a light bulb.

“What are you doing?” the man asked him. My father looked down and, wondering at the question, said, “changing a bulb.”

“I know. But why are you doing it?”

“Because the old one burned out,” he explained patiently, with his characteristic smile.

Leaving a neighbor’s shivah house five or six years ago, I was stopped by a gentleman who said he recognized me from a recent chasunah we had both attended, of a relative of mine (the man had a connection to the other family). I confirmed I had indeed been there. He then he took out his phone and said “I have to show you a short video from that chasunah. This zaken was dancing so gracefully, like a young bachur!”

My suspicion of what might be coming was borne out. The video was of my father, well into his 80s at the time, being mesame’ach the chassan and kallah with vigor and joy.

At present, he has five little boy descendants who carry his name (and one little girl who was named Simcha). May they, and, be”H, veiter simchos, herald a new infusion of joy into our world.

© 2017 Hamodia

The Price of Tea in Uzbekistan

As commuters made their way home from lower Manhattan last Tuesday evening, the police presence was strong, complete with heavily armed officers, helicopters and dogs. At that point, no one knew if the man currently charged with ramming a truck into people on a nearby bike path, killing eight and injuring twelve, was part of a larger terrorist plan or a lone wolf.

The show of vigilance may have made people feel safer. It may even have made them safer, since a broader police presence can, in the event of a terrorist act like last week’s, prevent worse outcomes. The unfortunate fact, though, remains that it is simply impossible to prevent evil people from doing evil things.

To be sure, we must make what reasonable efforts we can to prevent depraved people from entering our country, from plotting to commit violent acts and from carrying them out.

But the carnage caused by Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov is illustrative of how it isn’t really possible to prevent malevolent individuals – who proliferate so easily these internet days – from wreaking havoc when they choose to.

The accused Manhattan killer was in the country legally, holding a green card, a beneficiary of the “diversity visa lottery,” by which approximately one million foreigners have been awarded legal permanent residency in the U.S., despite having no relatives here or special skills.

President Trump was quick to blame that program for the recent attack, and claimed that New York Senator Chuck Schumer was at fault. The senator was indeed one of those who helped create the program in 1990. He was also, though, among senators who proposed to end it several years ago.

But the issue of the visa lottery has as much to do with what happened in Manhattan last week as it does with the price of tea in Uzbekistan.

The truck terrorist (I’ll drop the “accused”; the fiend has expressed joy over and pride in what he did) seems to have been radicalized after his arrival on these shores, apparently when he wandered from job to job and didn’t land the one he wanted. When he was chosen in the 2010 visa lottery, he was subject to the same vetting procedures as any immigrant, and raised no concerns. Someone approved to immigrate because of special skills or relatives here can also become radicalized.

As can someone born here. The nonpartisan think tank New America tallied the citizenship status of 418 individuals accused of jihadist terrorism crimes in the U.S. since 9/11, and found that fully 85 percent of them were either U.S. citizens or U.S. legal residents – about half of them born American citizens.

And then there is non-jihadi violence against innocents, like last month’s attack in Las Vegas, where a born American killed 58 people and wounded 489. The very day after the more recent terrorist act, a gunman (with no connection to Islam, much less Islamism) walked into a Colorado Walmart and nonchalantly killed three people. And then, this past Sunday, a man shot 26 people to death at a Texas church.

Some, frustrated at the lack of a good blamee (well, it should be a word) for last week’s attack in Manhattan, consider the company that rented Mr. Saipov a truck to bear some responsibility for his actions. But on what grounds should he have been refused? His name? His beard? His religion? His country of origin? Anyone with a valid driver’s license and a credit card can rent a vehicle. Did that fact facilitate last week’s violence? Surely. Can it be applied selectively without violating federal law? Just ask a lawyer.

Restricting immigration may be a good idea (though if Uzbekistan is blacklisted, that will affect the Bukharian Jewish community still there). Careful vetting of foreigners entering the country surely is. But neither notion is a solution to terrorism. Nor, although a fine idea whose time has long arrived, is tougher gun control.

I have come up with several theoretical but entirely workable ideas for sneaking weapons onto public transportation, including onto planes (no, I’m not telling). I imagine similar ones have been conceived by people inclined, as I am not, to killing or maiming innocents.

So what is the solution to terrorism? A secret: There is none. And no one, or thing, to blame when evil is wrought.

There are prudent steps to be taken, yes. But if we think any or all of them can prevent bad people from doing bad things, or that some policy or law is at fault when they do, we fool ourselves.

We might better ponder a passuk: “If Hashem will not guard a city, in vain does its guard keep his vigil” (Tehillim 127:1).

And recognize the import of its message.

© 2017 Hamodia

 

The Pitfall of “Orthopraxy”

Amid the abundance of good Jewish writing these days, it would be a challenge to declare any single article particularly outstanding. But a remarkable recently published essay merits such a distinction. And it was written by a teenager.

His name is Eitan Gross, and he describes himself as “a normal Modern Orthodox kid, who goes to a normal Modern Orthodox school” and who grew up “in a mainstream Modern Orthodox world.” And who has “a big problem with Modern Orthodoxy and where it’s heading.”

Eitan (whose maturity merits a “Mr. Gross” but who I suspect would be uncomfortable with such formality) explains that he has been able to sample much of contemporary culture and to benefit from secular studies even as he has studied Torah and learned “what it means to be a Jew.”

But, he laments, he has come to witness “hypocrisy and internal contradiction” in his community.

The metaphor he chooses is poignant: “Living in a Modern Orthodox world is like letting an alcoholic shop by himself in a supermarket. The supermarket has many sections filled with healthy foods, but it also has a section dedicated to wine and other alcoholic beverages… chances are that he will not be able to get out of the store without approaching the section.”

“Modern Orthodoxy,” he continues, “provides many opportunities for positive effects on our lives, like the healthy foods have on a person. But it also hasn’t put up enough boundaries for us to avoid the alcohol, or evils, that the secular world has to offer.”

“We,” he asserts, referring to Modern Orthodox teens, “are high school students before talmidim. We are aspiring sports players before yearning Talmud scholars. We are college graduates before yeshiva bachurim. We are Modern before Orthodox.”

And he sees some Jews in his orbit treating halachos “as if they are a checklist – Say Modeh Ani, check. Wash hands, check. Then go to davening, look on my phone and wrap my tefillin before Aleinu because I’m so eager to get on with my day, but it still counts because I said Shema and Shemoneh Esrei, right? Check.”

And the results yield Jews “living an uninspired robotic Judaism, or falling off the derech altogether.”

Eitan suggests a renewed “emphasis on the truth of the tenets of Judaism, as well as an inspirational approach that creates a yearning and desire in the student to be closer to Hashem.”

He’s right, of course.  But not regarding one thing: his assumption that the need for such emphasis exists only in his community.

What about those of us in the “non-Modern Orthodox” world? Yes, we may be less invested than Eitan’s peers in the surrounding culture, but we are far from unaffected by it. And are our own priorities always ordered as they should be? As to rote observance, are we ourselves immune to the “Jewish checklist” syndrome? Is our distinctive dress, as it should be, a uniform, or at times a costume?

In a Dialogue essay four years ago titled “Observant but Not Religious,” Rav Aharon Feldman, the Baltimore Rosh Yeshivah, wrote that despite the “rejuvenation of Torah observance among Jews… something so utterly central to our existence as Jews continues to go wanting in the lives of many: the emotion of the heart, the focus and forethought of the mind, the commitment of the spirit.”

Rabbi J. David Bleich, a Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshiva University’s Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, wrote in a similar vein, bemoaning the “different form of Judaism” that has come to assert itself, an “Orthopraxy” that is “based upon practice rather than belief.”

It’s that reflexive observance that allows an otherwise observant Jew to speak to his Creator with words so garbled and hurried that, were he speaking to another mortal, they would elicit laughter. Such “mechanical Judaism,” if unarrested, can allow for unethical business practices or other issurim; or, more mundanely, to cut others off in traffic or speak rudely to people.

Falling into rote behavior is human nature, of course. Few of us always fully concentrate on what we’re saying to Hashem, nor do we always carefully enough weigh our every action and interaction on the finely calibrated scales of Torah propriety. But it’s vital to at least consciously aim at the highest Jewish ideals, to know when we’ve lapsed, to be pained by the fact. And to consciously endeavor, as Eitan suggests, to embrace the desire to be closer to Hashem.

The local Jewish newspaper where Eitan lives declined to publish his essay. That’s unfortunate. There is much his community could learn from it.

Much that all of us can.

© 2017 Hamodia

Two Apologies, One Disagreement and a Reiteration

In an article for the Jewish feminist group JOFA, Dr. Noam Stadlan objects to what I wrote in the Forward about the Orthodox Union’s stance on women being appointed as Jewish clergy.

His objections are several, and I will respond briefly to each below.  But, as explained a bit further below, the doctor glosses over the most salient, central point of what I wrote.

Dr. Stadlan is correct that I did not acknowledge the fact that there are Orthodox circles where women study Talmud. My apologies for that omission, but what texts are appropriate for formal teaching of women was not my topic.

Whether any recognized poskim consider it proper for women to speak before men was likewise not my topic. My en passant reference to women speaking to women was written from my personal experience (though not only in “haredi” shuls), and I apologize here too if it inadvertently insulted anyone.

I strongly disagree, though, with Dr. Stadlan’s stark judgment that it is somehow out of bounds for someone like me who looks to haredi poskim for guidance to offer an opinion about a challenge faced by a “Modern Orthodox” organization committed to halacha. I think, on the contrary, that it reflects a feeling of concern for other halacha-respecting Jewish communities than one’s own.  (Incidentally, as the bio at the end of my Forward piece indicates, I wrote my piece as an individual Jewish blogger, not in the name of Agudath Israel, which is mentioned only afterward for identification purposes.)

Most important, Dr. Stadlan seems to misunderstand the essence of what I wrote.  I did not set out to make a halachic case “against the ordination of women.”  I am not qualified as a posek, and would never arrogate to write as one.  It may well be the case, as some writers cited by Dr. Stadlan assert, that a “halachic case can be made for the ordination of women.”

What I wrote – and this is the central point Dr. Stadlan somehow misses – was that the question of women rabbis, which may be a legitimate one and is certainly one of great societal import today, was responsibly placed by the Orthodox Union before poskim to whom it looks for halachic guidance.

There is, pace Dr. Stadlan, no Jewish concept of halacha divorced from recognized poskim qualified to apply halachic principles (and, yes, meta-halachic principles no less, which have always been and remain very much part of reaching authoritative halachic decisions).  Whom one turns to for a psak is one’s own business, but acknowledging that there are widely recognized and respected poskim in various communities (be they “centrist”, “yeshivish”, or any particular flavor of Chassidic) is not a “no true Scotsman fallacy”; it is the very essence of how halacha has been applied over history to new circumstances – and how it must be responsibly applied today.

Sullied Reputation

The rioting last month in St. Louis following the acquittal of a white former police officer who killed an African-American man, like all rioting in the wake of unpopular verdicts, was ugly and unjustifiable.  While the majority of protesters were peaceful, some hoodlums broke store windows and threw rocks at police.

The city’s acting police chief, Lawrence O’Toole, came under fire for stating, after calm was restored, “I’m proud to tell you the City of St. Louis is safe, and the police owned tonight.” Georgetown law professor Paul Butler retorted that if “the police actually are in charge, if they actually own the night, that’s a police state, not a free country.”

He’s wrong. Empowered police are essential to a free country.

The Mishnah (Avos 3:2) teaches that governments are what prevent anarchy, and thus deserve our tefillos. And law enforcement officers are the front line of maintaining the peace.

What spurred the largely peaceful protests, though, shouldn’t escape our attention.

The police officer acquitted of murder, Jason Stockley, and his partner chased a suspected criminal, Anthony Smith, who had fled in a car.  The officers slammed their SUV into the suspect’s car. Officer Stockley got out and fired five shots, killing the suspect. A handgun was taken from the car after the shooting.

The police vehicle’s dashboard camera, however, shortly before the chase ended, captured Mr. Stockley seeming to say that he was “going to kill this [expletive].” At trial, the officer said he could not remember saying that.

Prosecutors also argued that the presence of Mr. Stockley’s DNA – and the absence of Mr. Smith’s – on the retrieved gun proved that Mr. Stockley planted the weapon on the suspect’s person. (More than 40 criminal cases have been dropped in Baltimore alone after police body cameras show officers there allegedly planting evidence.)

The judge, though, noted the lack of any direct evidence of wrongdoing; cited court testimony that the absence of someone’s DNA on a gun is not conclusive; and opined that for a person engaged in criminal activity to “not [be] in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”

I won’t second-guess the judge.  He heard all the testimony and saw all the evidence, and I didn’t.  But it’s understandable why the outward facts of the case led some in St. Louis to voice their displeasure.

Police officers facing criminals they believe are armed need to make split-second decisions, and cannot be expected to pause to meditate on their situation. Still and all, police misconduct happens.

Like it did in the bloodless but still deeply disturbing case of Fred Watson, who was sitting in his car in a Ferguson, Missouri park in 2012 when a police officer approached, searched the man’s car without permission and wrote him more than half a dozen tickets.  Among them was one for not wearing a seatbelt, even though the car was parked; and one for offering a false report – because Mr. Watson identified himself as “Fred” instead of the “Freddie” on his license.

Mr. Watson, a Navy veteran and cybersecurity expert, is black. According to his account, when he protested the citations, the white officer pulled out his gun and told him: “I could just shoot you right here and no one would” care.

A case of “he said, he said”?  Maybe.  But the officer’s record shows that he pistol-whipped a 12-year-old girl in the face in 2006, and in 2007 struck another child in the face with something metal before falsifying a police report.

Meanwhile, Mr. Watson said that the city’s five-year-long prosecution caused him to lose his security clearance, resulting in his being fired from his well-paying cybersecurity job. Last month, without explanation, Ferguson prosecutors dropped all charges.  Better late than never.

It isn’t always white on black mistreatment, either. This past July, a black police officer in Coney Island ordered a white man, Raymond Crespo, to pick up a cup his friend had knocked from his hand. When Mr. Crespo didn’t, the officer threw him against a door and then threw him down and dragged him along the ground – all captured by a surveillance camera. Mr. Crespo filed a complaint.

The next day, Mr. Crespo says, the officer, in plainclothes, sought him out, asked him why he had made the complaint and, revealing a gun in his waistband, said, “Do you know what I’m going to do to you?”

There is no inconsistency in both wholeheartedly supporting police and being deeply distressed by police misconduct.  Quite the contrary, for those of us who truly value the dedication of law enforcement personnel, the irresponsible yechidim in their ranks are all the more loathsome, for they only sully the good reputation of the vast majority of police, unfairly but surely.

© 2017 Hamodia