A piece I wrote for Forward about Ronald Lauder’s recent op-ed in the New York Times can be read here.
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
An article about an inconsistency in the heterodox Jewish movements’ attitudes appears on Tablet, and can be read here.
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, truth, is 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
In advance of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s address to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, that group passed a resolution on “Jewish pluralism” in Israel, opposing a bill to enshrine a single conversion standard in the country and asserting that the Israeli Government’s decision to freeze an agreement about the Western Wall has “deep potential to divide the Jewish people.”
It is sadly ironic, although not surprising, that leaders of heterodox movements that have in fact undermined true Jewish unity and continuity by inviting intermarriage and breaking away from the Jewish religious heritage have of late been lecturing others about Jewish unity.
More disappointing still are the unity-cries of the Jewish Federation movement. The historic role of Jewish federations has been to provide support and solace for disadvantaged or endangered Jews and to mobilize the community to come to Israel’s aid when it is threatened. Taking sides in religious controversies anywhere, and certainly in Israel, egregiously breaches the boundaries of that role.
The Jewish Federations of North America, moreover, has traditionally sought to represent all of American Jewry, but here it entirely ignores the feelings of the substantial and growing American Orthodox community.
The Reform and Conservative movements, despite their great efforts over decades, have few adherents in Israel. Most of their members do not visit or settle in Israel, nor do they visit the Western Wall in large numbers. And yet their leaders seem prepared to offend the religious sensibilities of their Orthodox brethren, who regularly visit and move to Israel, and who come to the Kotel to pour out their hearts to G-d there. A holy place should not be balkanized, nor wielded as a tool to advance partisan social goals.
And the patchwork of standards for conversion that exist in America has created an Ameican Jewish landscape where those who respect halacha as the ultimate arbiter of personal status cannot know who is in fact Jewish. Creating in Israel a multiplicity of “Jewish peoples,” as is the tragic reality in America, would not foster unity but its opposite.
To our dear Jewish brothers and sisters, we say: Please do not push for changes at the Kotel that will only cause discord and pain to the vast majority of Jews who worship there. And please realize that the conversion standards that have ensured Jewish unity for millennia are the only ones that can preserve it for the future.
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.
An article of mine about the Orthodox Union’s quandary over how to deal with member-congregations with women clergy can be read here.
An article of mine in the Forward that takes issue with Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ claim that the majority of American Jews support the import of “Jewish religious pluralism” to Israel, and that explains why Orthodox Jews oppose such an import, can be read here.
“Le roi est mort, vive le roi!”
That’s the famous French declaration that was traditionally made when a monarch had breathed his last: “The king is dead. Long live the king!”
Recent days have revealed the news that a slogan has expired. The late phrase is “Open Orthodoxy.” No longer will it be employed by the institutions that once proudly held it aloft as a banner. It has been summarily dispatched, sent to its grave. But what the phrase stood for, at least for now, lives on.
It was disclosed last week that back on July 26, The New Jersey Jewish News received a communication from “Yeshivat Chovevei Torah,” or “YCT,” the seminary of the movement that must no longer be named, informing the paper that “We have been referred to as an ‘Open Orthodox Seminary’ by your newspaper, which is incorrect. ‘Open Orthodox’ is not a term that we use to describe ourselves, nor is it part of any language on our site, mission, marketing materials, etc.”
Note the present tense. It is employed because the term now prohibited was in fact the institution’s credo, included even in its mission statement at its founding in 1999, and used thereafter until relatively recently.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, the father of the now-disdained phrase, extolled it when he introduced it as “expressing vibrancy, inclusivity and non-judgmentalism”(implying it seemed, that others lacked vibrancy, rejected Jews and sat in judgment on them – and that they were “closed’), and as conveying the new movement’s embrace of non-traditional ritual roles for women, celebration of people engaged in aveiros chamuros, relaxation of halachic requirements for geirus and encouragement of interfaith “dialogue.”
None of that, of course, has changed, only the unfortunate phrase. The once “open” movement has now claimed an adjective once employed by others but that had fallen into disuse: “Modern”.
What was once called “Modern Orthodoxy,” which never dared abandon what the erstwhile “openers” have happily jettisoned, shed that phrase long ago in favor of “Centrist Orthodoxy.” And so, un-copyrighted as “modern” was, the new group dusted it off and decided it looked nice on them.
The change, though, of course, is cosmetic. The Open/Modern group whose institutions include the earlier mentioned YCT, “Yeshivat Maharat,” which trains female religious leaders, and a small rabbinical association called the International Rabbinic Fellowship (“IRC”) has, if anything, “liberalized” its stances even more.
As the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah felt compelled to state with sadness two years ago, the Open Orthodox movement “reject[s] the basic tenets of our faith… and [is] no different from other dissident movements throughout our history that have rejected these basic tenets.”
Some leaders of the errant group took umbrage at that statement, which they took as a personal rejection.
But it wasn’t people being rejected, but rather a concept – that the Torah and halachah can be molded, like so much Silly Putty, to comport with “modern” mores.
And, speaking of kindergarten, Humpty Dumpty famously insisted that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” With all due respect to the fictional fellow, in the real world words in fact have objective meanings.
To be sure, words’ meanings can change. Once, not very long ago, a “mouse” was exclusively a furry creature, and “gay” meant only “joyful.” But a theology that is indistinguishable from that of the Conservative movement cannot, pace Mr. Dumpty, be called “Orthodox.”
Over the past century or two, “Orthodoxy” has been synonymous with full acceptance of the mesorah – including, of course, the historicity of Yetzias Mitzrayim; the fact that the Torah Shebichsav and Sheb’al Peh were bequeathed our ancestors at Har Sinai; and that the avos existed – concepts that prominent products of or leaders of the “Open Orthodoxy” movement are on record as rejecting.
So why must the YCT/Yeshivat Maharat/IRC nexus seek any new adjective at all? What it needs is not an adjective but a new noun. And a prefix for it. To wit: “Conservative” and “Neo,” respectively.
Calling themselves a new branch of the faltering Conservative movement, though, would deprive the group of the free publicity and celebration some Jewish media so eagerly offer it. After all, there’s nothing very newsworthy, or for that matter new, about a Jewish movement that “updates” the Torah to “teach” what its leaders feel it should have said.
But, were the guiding lights of the Open/Modern movement truly dedicated to honesty and forthrightness, that’s just what they would do.
© 2017 Hamodia
An article I wrote back in 2001 for Moment Magazine, a Jewish periodical, was not well-received at the time in some circles.
Understandably. The article’s thesis was that the Conservative movement’s claim to halachic integrity was not supported by fact, and that Conservative Jews who respect the mesorah should consider joining Orthodox communities. Conservative leaders were not pleased by the assertion or invitation, and their reaction was fueled further by the incendiary title the publication placed on the piece. I had titled it “Time to Come Home”; Moment ran it under the oversized headline “The Conservative Lie.”
The article (which, I immodestly add, won an American Jewish Press Association award). inspired several Conservative movement officials to vent, and to insist that their movement was in fact, despite my claim, committed to halachah.
But I turned out to be a navi of sorts (no badge of honor there; Chazal see nevuah after the Churban as the province of fools and children). I predicted that the Conservative leadership would one day “halachically” approve certain relationships that halachah expressly forbids in no uncertain terms. In 2006, I was vindicated when the Conservative movement’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” made the precise endorsement I had foreseen.
It didn’t occur to me, though, at the time, that the movement’s clergy might one day actually consider going so far as to give their hechsher to intermarriage.
But, it was recently disclosed, in late June, 17 members of the Conservative movement’s clerical group, the Rabbinical Assembly, sat down for a meeting to decide what to do about intermarriage.
Since the 1970s, the movement has banned its clergy from officiating or even attending wedding ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews.
Of late, though, resistance to that stance has been steadily building.
An erstwhile assistant dean at the Conservative movement’s flagship school, the Jewish Theological Seminary, quit her position over the intermarriage ban. The former religious leader of Philadelphia’s Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Seymour Rosenbloom, wrote an op-ed about officiating at the wedding ceremony of his stepdaughter and her non-Jewish husband last spring.
Roly Matalon, a member of the Rabbinic Assembly who presides over a large Manhattan synagogue, announced not long ago that the institution’s clergy would begin officiating at intermarriage ceremonies.
The previously mentioned Seymour Rosenbloom says that “It seems like we’re coming to a tipping point [on embracing intermarriage]… Everyone is talking about this right now.”
Not all his colleagues, certainly, are happy with the trend. “To bless an intermarried union” said David Wolpe, the senior clergyman at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, “is … to in some way betray the very thing that I’ve given my life to, which is to try to maintain the Jewish tradition.”
“It’s not fine,” he contends, “and it can’t be made fine.”
And what about halachah? My “revelation” in 2001 that raised such hackles seems to have achieved ho-hum status.
t this point in the history of the Conservative movement,” Daniel Gordis, an American Conservative clergyman, asserted, “to start making an argument on the basis of what Jewish law mandates feels to me a bit hollow… That’s not intellectually honest. The horse has left the barn. The train has left the station.”
The Jews, though, haven’t left the movement.
Many of them, of course, are ambivalent about, if not pleased by, the Conservative slide toward celebrating intermarriages. They may be products of such marriages, parents or siblings of intermarrieds, or intermarried themselves.
According to the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews, the percentage of Conservative synagogue members who were intermarried tripled from 1990 to 2013, from 4 percent to 12 percent.
What’s more, the sheer number of American adults who belong to a Conservative synagogue has fallen during that period from 723,000 adult Jewish congregational members in 1990 to 570,000.
And yet, fully 94% of Jews affiliated with Conservative synagogues say that being Jewish is very important to them; 91% fast on Yom Kippur; 96% attend services on the Yamim Nora’im.
The Conservative world still harbors well-meaning Jews who care about their religious heritage, who are parts of Conservative congregations by accident of birth, or who migrated there from the Reform or the unaffiliated Jewish worlds, seeking to reconnect to Jewish tradition.
And there is no small number of young Jews from Conservative-affiliated homes who, through camping or Birthright trips or campus kiruv efforts, found their way to the world of shemiras Torah u’mitzvos.
It would be irresponsible of us to write off Conservative Jews as hopelessly estranged from our mutual mesorah.
Ironically, the movement’s drift toward accepting intermarriage might just push its more Jewishly aware members to conclude that it really is, now, time to come home.
© 2017 Hamodia