Category Archives: Pluralism

Letter in the New York Times

A letter of mine was published in the New York Times on Shabbos:

To the Editor:

In his essay “Israel, This Is Not Who We Are” (Op-Ed, Aug. 14), Ronald S. Lauder sees the Israeli sky falling, as a result of Israel’s “destructive actions” like the maintenance of traditional Jewish religious decorum at the Western Wall, which Mr. Lauder criticizes as coming at the expense of a planned egalitarian prayer space, and a new Israeli law that establishes Israel as a state with a Jewish identity, which he says “damages the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim citizens.”

But Israel, as a self-described Jewish state, needs a Jewish standard for public behavior at religious sites and to inform religious personal status issues. The standard that has served the state since its formation has been the Jewish standard of the ages — what the world calls Orthodoxy.

And, whether or not the nation-state law was necessary or wise, it does not impinge in any way on the equality before the law of any Israeli citizen.

Israel is not, as Mr. Lauder says some think, “losing its way.” It is the vast majority of the world’s Jews, those who do not regard their religious heritage as important, who are in danger of being lost — to the Jewish people. And it is those indifferent Jews who have the most to gain from the example of Israel preserving the traditional Jewish standards and values that have stood the test of history.

Avi Shafran

New York

The writer, a rabbi, is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Klal Yisrael Matters

A “scandalous letter” in the files of Israel’s official rabbinate “reflects ignorance,” delivers “a severe blow” to Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry and “abandons the religious system in Israel to haredi hands.

Thus spake Assaf Benmelech, whose organization, “Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah,” seeks to promote “open and tolerant discourse” within Orthodoxy.

Indeed.

Mr. Benmelech, a lawyer, is representing one Akiva Herzfeld, who was ordained by the “Open Orthodox” institution Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (“YCT”) and whose certification of a woman’s Jewish status was rejected by the Israeli Rabbanut.  The letter at issue, he asserts, based its rejection on the rabbi’s affiliation with “modern Orthodoxy.”

That assertion has led to loud criticism from America, where the official Israeli rabbinate is being characterized as maintaining a “blacklist” and bowing to what one critic called “the more extremist elements among them” – the dreaded chareidim, of course.

Mr. Benmelech’s characterization of YCT as representative of “modern Orthodoxy” does a grave disservice to Jews and institutions that have worn that latter label for decades.  The movement with which the lawyer’s client is affiliated has indeed tried of late to shed its titular skin, exchanging “Open” for “Modern.”   But (to shamelessly mix wildlife metaphors) the leopard has not changed its spots.

The “Open Orthodox” movement, whatever it calls itself, is, simply put, not Orthodox at all. That is to say that it is theologically indistinguishable from the early Conservative movement, which at least had the honesty to admit that it was a new, divergent, endeavor.

The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah has declared the movement “no different than other dissident movements throughout our history that have rejected [Judaism’s] basic tenets.”

For its part, the Rabbinical Council of America does not accept YCT’s rabbinic certifications as credentials for membership; neither does the National Council of Young Israel.  And Roshei Yeshivah at Yeshiva University have likewise rejected the appropriateness of “Orthodox” as descriptive of YCT.

The movement and its supporters’ prevarication is evident too in the use of the word “blacklist” to describe what is, in the end, a simple insistence on standards.  Medical students who have not demonstrated the knowledge or ethos needed to earn their accreditation have not been “blacklisted”; they have simply not made the grade. And if a medical association considers a particular medical school to be deficient in its training of doctors, the school’s degrees will not be recognized.  It hasn’t been “blacklisted”; it has simply failed to meet the required standard.

And so, the Israeli rabbinate has every right – and responsibility – to reject the credentials of those affiliated with YCT. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l – whose teshuvos are duly cited by YCT leaders when they feel something in the Gadol’s decisions comports with some position they espouse – was clear that a mere affiliation with the Conservative or Reform movement invalidates a rabbi’s ability to offer testimony (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:160).

Over most of Jewish history, individual rabbanim’s testimonies were all it took to establish Jewish credentials, and geirus and gittin overseen by a beis din were not generally challenged.

There were days, too, though, when halachah-observant Jews could judge the kashrus of a processed food by just reading the ingredients.

Today, though, Jewish life is more complicated.  Food products contain a laundry list of obscure colorings, flavorings and preservatives, from a multitude of sources.  That’s why kashrus organizations were established, and why they are necessary.

“Rabbis” today, too, have different ingredients and come in different flavors. If halachah is to be respected, standards are not only important but an absolute necessity.  At least if Klal Yisrael matters.

Tragically, in America today, there are, in reality, a multitude of “Jewish peoples,” born of the variety of definitions here of “Jewishness.” What is called “Jewish religious pluralism” has yielded an irreparable fracture of the American Jewish community. Innocent people, due to non-halachic conversions and invalid gitten, have become victims of the “multi-Judaisms” American model.

That disastrous situation is largely not the case today in Israel, due to the single standard upheld by the country’s rabbinate, no matter how imperfect the institution’s bureaucracy  may seem in some eyes.  Were things otherwise, the largest Jewish community in the world, the one residing in Eretz Yisrael, would be as divided and incoherent, chalilah, as the American one.  The maintenance of halachic standards are what have prevented that frightening scenario.

Hamodia readers know that, of course. But our fellow American Jews need to realize that – if they truly care about Klal Yisrael – they need to move past umbrage-taking and political positioning and confront the Jewish future with honesty.

© 2018 Hamodia

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

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

Agudath Israel of America: “Jewish Pluralism” Undermines True Jewish Unity

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.

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.