Thursday, February 27, 2014

YU and the partnership minyan threats

Bah. Another Important Issue of the Day has come up and I still haven't completed my posts about the last one. The secret mission that has ruined this week ends soon, and then its back to your regularly scheduled programing but for now, here are my two cents on the letter Yeshiva University sent to the rabinical student who hosted a partnership minyan.

(1) YU had every right to do what it did. I disagree with the approach, but until I take over their Board of Trustees nothing I think really matters.

(2) Gary Rosenblatt blew this way the hell out of proportion. In his newpaper, he says YU threatened to hold back the smicha degree if the student didn't start toeing the school's anti-woman line. Though I agree that's implied in the letter, which you can see below, its not said overtly, and perhaps we're misunderstanding the message. In any case, there's no real threat. All YU wants is a promise that the kid will follow school rules. I didn't see any mention of any consequences.

(3) YU has actual musmachim who use microphones and lead conservative shuls. They have musmachim who disagree with the YU Roshei Yeshivot on every important mater of the day, and some of these disagreements are collected in official YU publications. None of them have had their smichah revoked. This means that either (a) YU is a typical anti-woman hypocrite who takes big dramatic stands on anything having to do with women that they don't take on any other matter; or (b) the kid's smichah is not in any danger. I think (b) is much, much more likely.

DB out

The letter:
The Gary Rosenblatt article that made this seem like YU sent thugs to the kids door:

 Search for more information about ###

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A MOOC about the Bible's history?

Well, this looks interesting:
The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future
How and why was the Bible written? Drawing on the latest archeological research and a wide range of comparative texts, this course synthesizes fascinating recent research in biblical studies and presents a powerful new thesis: Facing catastrophic defeat, the biblical authors created a new form of community—what today we would call "peoplehood." Their achievements bear directly on modern questions of politics, economics, and theology.
This looks like another one of those MOOCS - Massive Open Online Course - only this one is sponsored by Emory, taught by someone I know, and covers a topic that interests me. I hit the "Join For Free' button, gave my bogus info, and got this back:
Welcome to The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future! 
This is an exciting course that covers a lot of ground. Our overarching question is: Why was the Bible written? 
Much of what is written and taught about the Bible focuses on matters related to the Bible’s historicity, the ethical questions it poses for modern readers, and its particular themes (very often of a theological nature). These are all undeniably significant matters, and as such they deserve attention. 
Yet the most intriguing question, the one that determines how we approach all other matters related to the Bible, is Why? Why was the Bible written? Why didn’t the civilizational centers of the ancient world produce something like it? And why has it had such a major impact on our societies. 
I’m not going to disclose my answer here. But rest assured: Even if you have already taken many courses on the Bible or follow biblical scholarship closely, you will be exposed in the coming weeks to some new ways of understanding the Bible’s origins and purpose. 
The implications of what we will be doing transcend matters of theology and ethics to touch on the grandest, most all-embracing, question of what it means to be a people. 
The course lasts just seven weeks. (Seven weeks—I thought that was appropriate for a course on the Bible!) We will spend the first two weeks considering what archeologists and historians have to say about Israel’s history, examining Israel’s origins as well as the rise of its kingdoms. 
Our focus for the remainder of the course will be not on the rise but on the fall—by that I mean the experience of defeat that wiped out the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. We will investigate how the biblical authors responded to this political catastrophe by radically reshaping Israel’s identity and by developing related strategies that would sustain their communities in a new age. 
The strategies are most remarkable, and they relate directly to enduring questions that face our own communities. The course consists of video lectures, readings, weekly assignments and discussions, and quizzes. Once you log in, you will be taken straight to the announcements page. Please be sure to check this page periodically, as it will keep you informed about all organizational matters. 
I look forward to getting to know you through your comments and questions. And I will be writing you collectively, and in some cases individually, at regular intervals. 
Provehito in altum! (That’s Latin. Your first assignment is to translate it.) 
Dr. Jacob L. Wright 
Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible Candler School of Theology Emory University
Very promising...

 Search for more information about Emory

Things I owe you

Dear Loyal Readers,

Hi and thanks for being here.

This has been an unusually full week, and I've neglected my posting reponsibilities. But I am happy to report that two fun fisks are in the works and should be published soon. They are:
  • A description of all the silly things *** said about women, tradition and gender roles in his recent Jewish Press article
  • Another go at Pruzansky, who (surprise, surprise) seems to think that gay people should shut up and go away
If there is something else you'd like to see covered here, let me know.


Search for more information about ###

Monday, February 24, 2014

Top 10 Saying of R. Shteinman *w0w* *h0t*

by @azigra

A pamphlet released under the name Peninim V'hanhagos became available on line recently. The pamphlet is presented in the fashion of a certain kind of  book which is very popular nowadays, listing interesting sayings or customs of famous Rabbis organized by topic, such as Shabbos, Teffila, Kiruv, etc..

This pamphlet was not meant to be serious, it was published by someone as a way to denigrate the subject rabbi Yehuda Leib Shteinman. In many ways this compilation of statements, sayings, and practices has had the opposite affect by displaying the, sanity, and practicality of Rabbi Shteinman.

There are certainly many parts which would  rub people the wrong way, as many do for me, but they don't have to detract from his better statements. What follows is a selection of items which I find refreshing to hear from a person of this status and stature. I will post more in a later post. I've tried to translate each entry as closely as I am able to.  ht 

Here is why opponents of R Shteinman think you should oppose him too:
  1. During the Indian hair wigs situation, when it was learned that hair was used for idol worship, R Shteinman declared that there is no need to worry about this or to change your wig, and about the concern he said, "this is nareshkeit (nonsense)" 
  2. R Shteinman opines that the nusach of the siddur isnt exact and therefor when necessary it can be changed. For 'hataras nedarim' on New Year's eve he authored a shorter version so he could save time on that holy day.
  3. R Shteinman said, "people make a big deal out of the esrog but it isnt l'shem shamayim, esrog is an acronym (in hebrew) for 'al tavuni regel gavah', people search for an esrog for haughtiness and not for the mitzva.
  4. When a young yeshiva student died suddenly, the deceased friends asked R Shteinman  in what matter  they should strengthen themselves as a reaction to the death. R Shteinman responded that it is a normal occurrence that sometimes young people pass away. When the friends asked him about the Rambam who wrote that someone who doesnt mourn death should be worried and investigate what is wrong with himself, R Shteinman replied that the Rambam was referring to major disasters.
  5. At a panel discussing education, R Shteinman said that not everyone is capable of teaching (referring to people who obtain positions through nepotism), "we see Avroham had a son Yishmael."
  6. Regarding the custom of kissing a mezuzah, R Shteinman asked "what is the purpose of this custom? You think just because you touch a mezuza it makes you holy?"
  7. Regarding the statement in Nefesh Hachayim (by R Chaim of Volozhin) that were there to be a second wherein not a single person in the world was learning Torah the world would immediately be destroyed, R Shteinman said that this isnt correct, since fulfilling mitzvos also keeps the world running, even when we eat or sleep it counts since it is done to help in our service of hashem. Its likely that R Chaim of Volozhin was just exaggerating to make a point.
  8. R Steinman added we see from two sources (Avos 6:2 and Sukka 45b) that there were times when no body in the world was learning. 
  9. While speaking to student R Steinman said that one shouldn't be discouraged that their learning is weaker in middle of the year than it is at the beginning, since this is the nature of things. Even the Rashba's essays get shorter as he gets further into each gemora tractate. 
  10. Regarding what it states in Chovos Halevosos and is quoted in Shmiras Ha'lashon that someone who speaks loshon ha'ra acquires the sins of his victim, R Shteinman asked "from where did they get this? there is no source for this idea in tradition and it is very strange and odd to say such a thing."
  11. R Shteinman was asked if it can be repeated in his name that that since all kollel students have cell phones that the phones should be kept off during yeshiva hours. He answered that we cant know why someone has a phone, perhaps his wife needs him to have one....a person can decide for himself how to behave here but under no circumstance should it be to the detriment of his wife. 
  12. Someone asked R Shteinman whether they should avoid kiruv since they will see immodestly dressed women, he responded by quoting the Talmud: "who is a pious fool? someone who sees a women drowning in a river and says it isnt proper to look at her and to save her"
  13. R Shteinman says often that in our time the merit from learning Torah isnt as great as it used to be since we dont learn for its own sake. He added at one occasion, "who says our learning is even considered learning? Perhaps our ideas are wrong"
  14. Unlike how most people feel that the world was created for Torah study, R Shteinman says that the world was created to perform kindness. 
  15. Several yeshiva heads asked R Shteinman whether they should allow their students to travel to Uman for Rosh Hashana. He replied, "im certain that among all the people, there is at least one minyan of people davening properly, so its certainly a merit if they join that minyan"
More later. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

In which I tell Ramaz what to do

My view on the Ramaz thing is pretty simple:

(1) A school can set limits if it wants. Its under no obligation to give anyone a podium; however

(2) If over 150 students have expressed a sincere interest in hearing from a tenured Columbia University professor, the school should probably find a way to make that happen. The kids want to learn about the world? Teach them. And if you're worried they might learn the wrong things, well, there are all sorts of pedagogical solutions. The professor can be forced to appear on a panel with speakers the schools finds more appropriate, or the students can be required to hear a rebuttal or an introduction from someone who can deliver the opposing view.

I honestly don't know too much about this professor and what he stands for, but if he's as horrible as suggested, Ramaz should just follow the example of Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who, in 2007, welcomed that Iranian jerk to his campus with a stinging rebuke. Thats what Ramaz should do: Bring the professor and tell him off in a way the students can respect and understand, like Bollinger did, then let him reply.

Though the school can ultimately do as it wishes, and is answerable to donors and parents, not students, it may also have some chanoch hanaar al pi darko obligations here.

Expected objections:

Tenured Columbia University professor? The guy supports terrorism!

Ok, I don't want to get into a whole big thing about the definition of terrorism, so I'll just make any stipulation you want regarding his views. Still, I think we can expect a Columbia University professor to refrain from saying stupid and offensive things during an appearance at a Jewish school, and if the administration has any worries they can let him know ahead of time that some topics are off limits.

 Search for more information about ###

Ramaz Explains Why they Disinvited Rashid Kalidi


Dear Ramaz Parents and Faculty,

We want to make you aware of publicity surrounding an invitation that Ramaz extended--and later rescinded--to Professor Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, and Director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. As this receives increased media attention, it is important for you to know the background and Ramaz's position.

About a month ago, the Ramaz Politics Club, known as RamPo, invited Professor Rashid Khalidi to speak to Ramaz students. As you know, Ramaz is a school with a long tradition of openness and debate, so the students felt it was an appropriate invitation. Our students are encouraged to have candid discussions and hear diverse views on all subjects, including the Middle East conflict and the Palestinian perspective.

When I learned of this invitation, I, along with others, felt that the controversy would be inevitable and would massively overshadow any conversation, and make an educational experience impossible. Professor Khalidi, who is an international personality of great political stature, was not the right partner for "dialogue" with high school students, and we needed to cancel his visit.

In an effort to maintain a professional and respectful relationship with Professor Khalidi, it was very important that I meet with him personally to explain why we did not think his visit was appropriate. After an amicable and civilized discussion, which included a recognition that we were both graduate students at Oxford at the same time, he acknowledged he understood the issues at hand. The entire school appreciates Professor Khalidi's realistic understanding of the school's position.

Please note that the issue has never been about whether or not students should hear another view; they should. Our question was, "Is this the appropriate program?" To this end, we are working with RamPo to arrange an event that will provide the program content they originally envisioned.

Throughout this process, I have been speaking to the RamPo students and have come to admire their passion and engagement. We are working with them to navigate a delicate political situation, respecting their wish for open exchange of ideas, but also being mindful of multiple sensitivities within our varied school constituencies.

As always, please let me know if you have any questions.

Shabbat Shalom,

Paul Shaviv

 Search for more information about ###

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rashi changes the kiyor midrash. Why?

Rashi often quotes Midrashim, with subtle and not so subtle changes. A great example of this can be found in Rashi's comment about the mirrors used to build the kiyor (laver). (See the first comment) I'll list the discrepancies between the actual midrash and Rashi's cite, and then I'd very much like to hear some attempts to explain them. I think #3 is the most serious one

After the women offer their mirrors, Moshe is so offended by the suggestion that he tells the male Jews to take rods and break the women's legs
No mention of this

God is quoted telling Moshe that the mirrors were the most appreciated gift of all.
No mention of this


Because the Kiyor was used for the Sota ritual: "From these [the mirrors], the washstand was made, because its purpose was to make peace between a man and his wife. [How so?] By giving a drink from the water that was in it [the washstand] to [a woman] whose husband had warned her [not to stay in private with a certain man] and she secluded herself [with him anyway. The water would test her and either destroy her or prove her innocence."

Because the Kohanim used the Kiyor to sanctify themselves: "Take them and fashion from them the washstand for the priests to sanctify themselves from” as it says (38:8). And he made a copper washstand and its stand with the mirrors of the hosts…”

What I really want to understand is why Rashi takes a midrah that says the kiyor is for the kohanim, and instead chooses to emphasize that the kiyor is for the Sota ritual

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Revisiting the silly complaint against anonymous bloggers

Four decades ago Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote that he didn't respect anonymous complaints. Now thanks to a recent post on a Hirhuirim, many of you are trying to take those remarks from another era and apply them to blogging. In the post I share below Eliyahu Fink explains why that's a mistake. To his comments, I'll only add that I was deeply disappointed to see something so foolish coming from Rabbi Lamm's pen.

It may be true that the author of an anonymous letter or blog post is a coward but that's neither here nor there. The character of the writer has no bearing on the strength of his arguments. Something true remains true even if it was said by an invertebrate, and a moronic statement is a moronic statement even if the author of the statement provides us with his name, address and social security number.

Truth is, I'd like it better if everyone used pseudonyms. [Damn you Zuckerberg!] It seems to me that the only reason to use your real name on an Internet forum is to advance your vanity or to permit your arguments to rest on your reputation rather than your ideas. Without the burden of your identity, you're free to say what you really think. To speak your mind. To make vigorous arguments. Yes, sometimes the result is rudeness, but we're all grownups here. Moreover, if you're anonymous yourself the slings and arrows don't hurt nearly as much. Best of all, if you're anonymous none of the nastiness can follow you into the real world where it might do some real harm.

Several people have excerpted from the excerpt of R' Lamm's thoughts on anonymity published on R' Gil Student's Torah Musings. The gist of the quote is that R' Lamm doesn't pay attention to anonymous letters because they are written by cowards. People who don't stand behind their thoughts with their names are, in his words, pathetic and have the value of a check (what's that?) signed anonymously.
A few things:
There is a category of anonymity that R' Lamm does not mention. This is the category of the person who will suffer disproportionate consequences for their opinions. Worse, their families who didn't even say the thing that the anonymous person said will also be punished. I think that this kind of anonymity is unfortunate, but completely excusable. We can't expect every person to be willing to accept the ridiculous social consequences of having a different opinion.
It's a greater indictment of the society that discourages opinions and independent thinking than it is of the anonymous person.
Further, ideas in public forums are different than personal criticisms mailed in a letter. That's what R' Lamm was talking about. Ideas can stand on their own.
Also, there is a different kind of anonymity that is pseudonymous. That is, there is a name that a particular person who is unknown uses all the time. In this sense, the person is not really anonymous because the pseudonym is an independent identity that does stand behind its ideas. There is a great distinction between a consistent use of a pseudonym such that the pseudonym is known and a person who is completely anonymous and there is no credibility attached to the person's anonymous identity.
Finally, almost all the commenters on Torah Musings are pseudonymous or anonymous. Maybe Torah Musings should institute a commenting system that requires verification and real names. Oh, right, people would be quite reluctant to voice opinions if they were attached to their opinions because of the social consequences attached to opinions. So what was the point of posting this?

IE vs Rashi on the value of sensuality

The current parsha contains an astonishing debate between Rashi and Ibn Ezra on the nature of desire and sensuality.

The argument centers on Exodus 28:8. Rashi, following the Tanchuma, reads/translates the verse in a way that supports the idea that sensuality and desire are acceptable so long as they are used for a higher purpose. Meanwhile, Ibn Ezra reads/translates the verse in a way that supports the idea that its praiseworthy to distance yourself from desire and sensuality.

Here's the verse:
ויעש את הכיור נחשת ואת כנו נחשת במראת הצבאת אשר צבאו פתח אהל מועד׃

Here's Ibn Ezra's translation/reading:
They made the bronze basin and its bronze stand from mirrors belonging to the throngs that thronged at the entrance to the tent of meeting.

As he says: The mirrors belonged to pious women who renounced vanity and gave up their mirrors and spent their time crowded around the tent of meeting eager to learn God's will. Their mirrors are valuable because they represent their owner's renouncement of the physical for the sake of the spiritual.

Here's Rashi's translation/reading:
They made the bronze basin and its bronze stand from the mirrors that produced the crowds that crowded at the entrance..." (Rashi vocalizes הצבאת as a verb)

What Rashi has in mind is a famous Midrash about mirrors in which the women of Israel took it upon themselves to seduce their worn-out, enslaved husbands thereby guaranteeing the survival of the Jewish people. In the Midrash the women don't use the mirrors to make themselves beautiful but to flirt with their husbands and increase desire. These are the mirrors that "produced the crowds" that now gather in their myriads outside the Tent of Meeting. The mirrors are valuable because they represent the ideal and proper use of sensuality and desire.

Now about their methodology: What came first the reading/translation or the idea? Are Rashi and Ibn Ezra BASING their views of sensuality on what each considers the best reading/translation of the verse, or did each of them approach the verse with a pre-existing idea, and idea they justified by construing a translation/reading that lent the idea support?

 Search for more information about ###

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dumb things yeshivot do

Starting a list of basic, stupid things our schools do wrong. Add your own:

(1) Instead of using email or text they still call at 5 am to let you know school is closed due to snow

(2) The week-off before Pesach. Only helps the teachers at the expense of the parents. We have to work that week. Why don't teachers?

(3) The underlying assumption that both parents aren't working. This is why they tell you to come pick up your kid when he misbehaves. Um... how exactly?

(4) Suffice it to say hardly any of them pay attention to grammar. It sucks when a place I'm paying to educate my children employs people who can't compose an ordinary English sentence - and no one on the administration cares.

(5) The fetishiization of hats. Really, why does every Jewish school deliver the overarching message that hardly anything matters more than davening with a hat?

(6) The "Neshai" Usually a team of bored housewives who have dedicated their lives to nickle and diming the parent body to cover services and extras the kids don't want (or can live without: Really who cares about pizza lunch?) and the teachers don't need. Also, why call it "the Neshai"? Can we pretend to care about the Hebrew language at a Jewish school please.

More as it occurs to me. Add your own.

 Search for more information about ###


What's the biggest #NBCFail of the Sochi Winter Olympics?

It has to be how some dumb moron with a mike made poor Bode Miller cry by asking him one intrusive question after another about his dead brother following his Super G medal. Then, mission accomplished and Bode in tears, the camera lingered over the kneeling, bawling skiier for what felt like days. To his credit, Miller excused his interogrator, but personally I beleive that she and her stalker cameraman should be fed to the sharks, while the producers and editors who elected to include the segment in their evening broadcast should be crucified without nails.

ICYMI the whole horrible interview is here

Monday, February 17, 2014

Poor kids

I don't understand the math for millennials who are now trying to bravely make their way in the world as full-freight adults.

They probably have educational debt, and lots of it. Jobs are scarce and pay very little. For example, I know one 22 year old who, at her first job, is doing the same work and boasts the same title I had at my first job, several centuries ago. She's also making the same salary. At such a depressed wage, how is she supposed to pay off her debt, save for a downpayment and all the rest?

It doesn't add up, and the prospects are even worse for frum millennials who may not have piles of student debt, but also can't live at home until they're 25. They want to have sex, I mean they want to start families, which precludes staying at home. And then come the tuitions.

 Search for more information about poor kids

Curing ear infections with magic

As a service to the public I am now going to explain how fraudulent healers "cure" ear infections using oil of this, or extract of that.

In brief, it works like this:
  • Most of the time, there's no ear infection in the first place. The healer simply "cures" something that didn't exist. TEST: Who diagnosed the infection? A doctor or the healer? And how did the healer make the diagnosis?**
  • Other times, there really is an ear infection. However, left alone, most ear infections will resolve themselves without antibiotics. It all on the CDC website (link). Though it may be true that the a healer applied an oil or extract, and it may be true that an actual ear infection was healed, the two events are unrelated. The ear infection would have healed itself anyway.
Healers who use disreputable methods such as this in the service of false claims seem to be especially active in Hasidic neighborhoods. The harm they do is two fold:

First and most importantly, they undermine the traditional medical system, leading people to rely on nonsense when proven, effective remedies are available instead.  Second, an ear infection can occasionally be an indication of something serious, that healer will miss but an MD is likely to catch. 

** The fake allergy healers use a similar trick. They "diagnose" an allergy that doesn't exist, and then apply bogus treatments. This particular scam is especially popular among acupuncturists and chiropractors.

 Search for more information about ###

Friday, February 14, 2014

Something new that makes me blue: Ruach Halacha

The problem with the Gordimer approach as sketched on the current Cross Currents as I understand it is this:

Instead of deciding the truth of the halacha based on the best arguments, arguments themselves must first "be vetted by the greatest halachic masters of the generation (gedolei ha-dor), who are trained and attuned to the Ruach Ha-Halacha and can discern whether a certain practice conforms thereto"  OK. What is "Ruach Halacha"? Only the greats can say. What does and does not conform to "Ruach Halacha?" Again, only the greats can say. And what are the criteria for determing whether or not something fits "Ruach Halacha?" Well, sorry, but criteria are impossible to provide. Its entirely case by case.

This reduces the halachic process to an entirely ad hoc system. The greats, by virtue of their greatness, get to toss out what appear to winning arguments without being required to produce any - let alone better- arguments of their own. They can just say, "Sorry guys, nice try, but your argument doesn't fit the spirit of the law, as I see it ."

This is a great device for keeping things the way they are, but a terrible way to mantain the integrity of a system. Just as, eg, Antonin Salia has to produce pages of tightly reasoned arguments to justify his interpretations of the constitution, "the greatest halachic masters of the generation" must do the same. If we let the greats dismiss arguments with nothing more than a wave of their hands, we put ourselves at the mercy of their caprice. And though, I'll concede that the greats aren't as likely as you or I to game the system for personal gain, or to allow themselves to be corrupted, they are still men, and as James Madison observed in the document that made the best case ever presented for checks and balances, men are not angels so any system of government must include safegaurds that oblige the men who make up the government to control themlselves.

Search for more information about Ruach Halacha

Thursday, February 13, 2014


A guest post by Y. Bloch
I have a confession to make: I don't really live in Jerusalem anymore. Yes, on social media I'm known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem, but for the past three years I've lived in the West Bank town of Maale Adumim. How close is Maale Adumim to municipal Jerusalem? So close that a 4 1/2 square-mile area known as E1 is all that's needed to fill in the gap. That's why it's so hotly contested. Map Right now, there's a protest going on at E1, which you may have heard of under its media-friendly name, Mevaseret Adumim. That makes it sound like my hometown, or like the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone next door, home of SodaStream, where we all shop. (What, are you gonna go to Co-op at the mall? Have you seen how much their tomatoes are? THAT should be illegal under international law!)
This protest is being well-attended by the leading lights of the political right: members of Knesset, deputy ministers, officials and rabbis. Our mayor sent all forty thousand of us Adumites an invitation on Facebook.
But I declined. Yes, I know full well that the E1 Plan dates back to none other than Yitzhak Rabin, in those glory days between Oslo I and II. I also know that it doesn't technically slice the Palestinian part of the West Bank in two, as a road which we might build one day could go around the entire Greater Jerusalem (now featuring Maale Adumim!). But it does mean embracing East Jerusalem in a great Israeli bear hug, only increasing the awkwardness of the situation in which the 250,000 Arabs living there are citizens of an Israeli city (Jerusalem) but of a Palestinian state. OK, not a state. What are we calling it nowadays? An entity?
The essential question is the following: how much do we believe in the two-state solution endorsed by our last three prime ministers? (Yes, Ehud Barak was the last prime minister not to do so, at the turn of the century.) And if we don't believe in two states for two peoples, what is our solution to the fundamental injustice of a permanent underclass under Israeli control? Speaking of SodaStream, I was struck by the triumphalism of my/ our putative supporters. A Facebook group called "I support Scarlett Johansson against the haters" gets 30,000 likes, dwarfing the 17,000 likes on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement page? Well, that settles it. Clearly, Israeli policy is unimpeachable, because people liked a pretty girl on our side. Not that I know what our policy precisely is. Maybe our prime minister is waiting for his second decade in office to reveal that tidbit.
I know, I'm a settler myself; I should just shut up. What possible reason could I have for seeking defined, internationally-recognized borders for the Jewish state and the annexation of the town I live in? Instead, I should join Israeli and Jews worldwide in obsessing over the latest imagined slight from the Obama administration, the egregiousness of the boycott-sanction-divestment movement, the outrageous statements of Palestinian Authority officials. To do otherwise would be self-hating. Perhaps the real question is this: where do we see ourselves in fifty years? If we're planning for a recognizable Jewish, democratic Israel to still exist, we need to start making some tough, long-term decisions.
Unless Scarlett is the Messiah...

Search for more information about settlement

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Modern Orthodoxy: Are we witnessing its death throes?

by anonymous

Some facts (in no particular order of importance) ‐
  1. Modern Orthodoxy is losing some of its youth to secularism (some kids doing half‐shabbos, some leaving orthodoxy altogether, and other examples), this is perhaps partially self‐inflicted by not providing a proper religious education and not providing sufficient inspiration to our youth.
  2.  It is also losing some of its youth (and some of its young couples) to Ultra‐Orthodoxy, also partially self‐inflicted by exposing our youth at their most impressionable time to Ultra‐Orthodox hashkafa and learning.
  3.  The preeminent Modern Orthodox institution, the only one of its size and scope, is in desperate straits. And it appears that there is little effective action taking place to save it.
  4.  Its greatest halachic leaders have begun to claim a kind of Da’as Torah.
  5.  A large percentage of typical middle‐class families are nearly bankrupt due to very high tuition expenses at yeshiva day schools.
  6.  The left wing of Modern Orthodoxy is beginning to adopt certain practices that the right wing thinks are abhorrent. Some members of the left wing have even coined a new name for themselves.

So the question is, are we witnessing the death throes of Modern Orthodoxy? Is it something that will disappear over the next few generations, to have its left wing adherents either swallowed up by other sects or to become some new sect, to have its right wing adherents become Ultra‐Orthodox, and to require the few that remain in the middle to have to choose one of the other
 Search for more information about MO

Were we a better country....

Were we a better country back in the 40s when black people were still second class citizens, and subject to random attacks and lynchings? Were we a better country in the 60s when women were denied opportunities, and sexual harassment in the workplace was largely tolerated? Were we a better country when people winked at anti-Semitism? Were we a better country when poor people had few protections, when old people died for lack of basic medical care, and when children went to work instead of school?

Steven Pruzansky thinks so. Here's what he wrote in a January post that's recently come to my attention:
"It was a better country when FDR and JFK felt comfortable invoking G-d’s name, as it was, indeed, a better society when they, despite their infidelities, nonetheless felt it distasteful to divorce their wives."
In his very short post (for him; its only about 3 million words) Pruz argues that society is going down the tubes, in part because no one talks about God in public anymore. He longs for the day when presidents like FDR would pray with us. He misses having a Lothario Catholic in the Oval Office who wore his religion on his sleeve.

But what he doesn't seem to understand is all that extra Godliness didn't do much good. While presidents prayed publicly and rambled on about God, while children and teachers prayed together in public school, great injustices and acts of substantial immorality were committed across the land. America in 2014 is a profoundly better place than it was in the 40s and 60s. People are healthier and safer. They are wealthier. They live longer, happier, fuller lives. Society is fairer. The courts are more just. I won't argue that these improvements came about because God was removed from the public square, but you can't credibly argue that we had a "better country" or a "better society" back when His name was regularly invoked by teachers and presidents. What was better about poverty, injustice and lower life expectancies? What was better about widespread racism, sexism and anti-Semitism? What was better about a country that abandoned its most vulnerable citizens?

Pruzansky compounds his error when he writes about schools:
"There was a time when schools endeavored to produce good citizens, teaching civics and values, and reinforced proper cultural norms. That era ended a half-century ago, and fifty years of values-free education has produced fifty years of values-free students."
Given that the schools of that day produced citizens who tolerated, defended and committed, the injustices and immoralities discussed above, shouldn't we be glad their era has passed?

The "values" and "proper cultural norms" he credits here include the ideas that blacks are inferior, that women must be denied all opportunities and that the state has no special obligations to the weakest and most in need. Until the 60s our schools produced citizens who accepted and supported and even committed barbarities. Today schools produce citizens who largely consider those particular barbarities intolerable. The change Pruzansky decries was a change for the better. The values that were lost were inferior. They have been replaced with better values. Don't you wonder about a Rabbi who mourns for the day when immoral "values" and unjust "norms" were acceptable?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A few respectful questions for Rabbi Schachter

I am not a great Torah sage. I have not been through shas dozens of times. I do not, as Josh Waxman put it "live and breath the sources" and I have not "develop[ed] a feel for the way halacha works." I am not going to oppose Rav Shachter or argue with him.

But I do know how to work both Google and the much maligned Bar Ilan-search, plus I have seen a few pages of shas. And the combination of those experiences have left me with a nagging doubt about the central argument Rav Shachter presented in what the blogs are calling his "tefillin missive" So let me raise my hand, like a good talmud, and pose a respectful question.

In brief, I recall learning in BT Chagigah that there were in Temple Days two classes of people: (1) Perushim who were meticulous about purity, and accepted certain stringencies to protect the purity of their food and their bodies; and (2) Amei Ha'aretz who were not meticulous and could not be trusted to even keep the basic requirements.

Throughout the year, those priests who were perushim refused to take trumah (food offerings) from Amei Ha'aretz, and there were strict rules limiting the participation of the amei ha'aretz in Temple services. This was done to protect the priest and the Temple from being polluted through contact with food that may have been handled by people who were, themselves, in a state of impurity.

There is an echo of this in Rav Shachter's letter. He writes that it is a sectarian practice (of Conservative Jewry) for women to wear tefillin and "in our generation, all the Tannaim, all the Rishonim, and all the Achronim would agree that such practice is decidedly forbidden so as not to emulate the schismatic movements, even though it may appear as a stringency." In short, do nothing to suggest that other sects have validity, legitimacy, or any claim to the truth.

But the analogy shatters when you recall that the rules were different on holidays. On holidays the amei haaretz and their food were accepted by the persuhim with love. All stringencies were suspended. Efforts were made within the bounds of halacha to accommodate the ammei haaretz. Why? Because the sages feared that the amei haaretz would go off and start their own sect if they weren't made to feel welcome in Jerusalem on holidays.

Though Rav Shachter suggests the women wearing Tefillin are conservative Jews, this is factually incorrect. They are not conservative Jews, but Orthodox Jews who are on the verge of breaking off and forming a new Open Orthodox sect. If you ban their practices, they won't capitulate. They'll simply go off and form their own sect. This would be unavoidable, of course, if the practice in question was something completely treif, or in clear violation of Torah law, but here we are discussing practices great authorities of the past permitted. Though it is correct to say that their opinions were defeated it would be a completely wrong to say their opinions were beyond the pale of halachic legitimacy.

My questions, therefore, are as follows: Why is Rav Shachter demanding that we take a stand against Conservative Judaism, when the "offenders" belong to Orthodoxy? Why aren't we concerned, as the Sages were in the example I cite, that taking such a strong stand, and one punctuated with such robust language, might drive the "offenders" out of Orthodoxy, and contribute to the development of yet another sect? And, finally, shouldn't preventing the development of new Jewish sects be our overarching concern?
Search for more information about ###

Don't call me Orthodox

A guest post by Y. Bloch
I pity the members of the press who try to cover the Jewish world, especially that corner of it known as Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Jew has rarely, if ever, been seen in the wild. Orthodoxy is coupled with modifiers or replaced with euphemisms: ultra, modern, fervent, centrist, yeshivish, observant, open, traditional, orthoprax, conservadox. Then we start getting ornithological: are you right-wing MO (modern Orthodox) or left-wing MO, right-wing yeshivish or left-wing yeshivish? And speaking of yeshivish, which yeshiva? And if you want to even start talking about Hasidim, you're going to need extensive sects education.

We used to have a catch-all term: frum (pronounced not like "from", but to rhyme with Things That Make You Go Hmmm...), but since there aren't that many Yiddish speakers left, "Orthodox" has become the default term in the Western world. Thus, for example, when the Pew Research Center published its report on Jewish Americans, this was the picture they presented:
So why we should we care about taxonomy? It helps us understand why Orthodoxy tends to react so strongly to any activism on its left flank, while ignoring or endorsing activism on its right.

You see, Orthodoxy is the most right-leaning stream of Judaism recognized by most Western demographers. For this reason, moderates and even liberals are loathe to alienate anyone on the right. After all, Orthodoxy's claim to fame abroad is being the right flank of Judaism, and if someone's frummer than Orthodoxy, that identity will be lost. Meanwhile, whenever any one dares to stick a toe over "the line" to the left, there's a ready-made answer: hey, buddy, go to the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc. -- you're ruining our brand.

But here in Israel, we've gotten over that. According to our Central Bureau of Statistics, 43% of Israeli Jews are secular, 9% are haredi, and the remaining 48% are somewhere between masorti (traditional) and dati (religious): 23% the former, 10% the latter, and 15% smack in the middle. These five groups do not parallel the five groups identified by Pew, e.g. Orthodox is a denomination, while dati is a declaration.

Now, for a long time, dati was thought of in political terms, as a short descriptor for Tziyoni dati (religious Zionist) or dati leumi (nationalist religious). But we are now in the era of post-Zionism and post-denominationalism, and dati is just what it says it is.

Etymologically, dat is a Persian term for "law," found a dozen times in the Aramaic of Daniel and Ezra, and more than twenty times in the book of the month, the Scroll of Esther. Follow it through Esther, and you'll find that it is used for all sorts of things: statutes, rituals, decrees, customs, mores. There is the dat of drinking, the dat of women, the study of dat, the dat of the king, the dat of the Jews. It's very difficult to find one word in English to encompass all that, so let's not try. Honestly, of all terms, why go with Orthodox, which literally means "right-thinking"? You can call it dati olami if you prefer, making it universal or worldly, which is the dictionary definition of "catholic." I would much prefer to have been labelled a catholic Jew.

The advantage of being dati is that one no longer feels the need to hew to the right. Demographically, economically, socially, politically, the haredi are a distinct community, and they are not confused with the dati. It doesn't stop us from praying in the same synagogues, in which the bulk of the congregants may in fact be masorti. 

Ultimately, as many of my social-media friends have pointed out (shout out, Jeff!), the dati abroad must choose a side. There is a neoharedi movement afoot, which constantly obsesses over heresy, homosexuality and hysteria (in its original sense of "bitches be crazy").  You may have heard of some of their more egregious statements, from declaring war on gays to classifying most of their fellow Orthodox as idolaters; from classifying tefillin on women as worth dying for to calling for shooting the prime minister; from condemning efforts to free agunot to defending child molesters. This movement is not like the paleoharedi movement; it sounds reasonable, uses big words and may be led by folks with advanced secular degrees and active social-media accounts. But it's ultimately the same daat-Torah jazz--that's daat, not dat, the idea that the Torah must be protected and refined through great minds before it can be presented to the masses. If ever a movement deserved to be called orthodox, it's this one. They are welcome to the label.

As for me, don't call me Orthodox. I'm dati, and there's nothing else I'd rather be.

Search for more information about dat

Friday, February 07, 2014

How many men does it take to teach faith to women?

How many men in the audience would attend a seminar on, well, anything, if all the speakers were women? None of you right? Yet, someone thinks its a swell and perfect idea to offer a program designed for women but featuring only male instructors? And the truly horrible thing is I bet it will be well attended.
How many men does it take to teach faith to women?

Pay special attention to the pink tagline: EMPOWER YOURSELF by participating in a forum that makes it clear that your gender is the passive recipient not the creative presenter. What an empowering idea!

 Search for more information about ###

Union Jacked

A guest post by Y. Bloch
Let's talk about the United Kingdom--no, not the one with the scones and Beefeaters (sorry, I'm eating breakfast). Here in the Holy Land we had a United Kingdom three millennia ago, featuring such famous kings as David and Solomon, the lions of Judah. But it was Saul, the wolf of Benjamin, who actually united the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

This is in keeping with Benjamin's image throughout the Torah. Joseph is reconciled with the Judah and his brothers by their shared desire to protect young Benjamin. As for the tribe, we see the first hint of its unifying force in this week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh, as interpreted by the Jerusalem Talmud. The Torah states that the High Priest (I'd prefer Prime Minister, but whatever) wears an onyx on each shoulder of his vestments:
Take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel in the order of their birth—six of their names on one stone and the names of the remaining six on the other.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sota 7:4) states:
Said Rabbi Johanan: "Benjamin was split: 'Ben' on one and 'Jamin' on the other."
Said Rabbi Zebida: "Indeed! Does it say: their six names? No, it says, 'six of their names'--part of their names, not all of their names."
So Benjamin is quite literally the uniter; you need to put the two stones together to read his name. This is true not only in rocks, but in dirt as well: once the Israelites cross the Jordan, Benjamin receives the critical territory in the center of the country, bridging Judah in the south, Joseph in the north, Gad in the east and Dan in the west.

In fact, Saul is neither the first nor the last of the wolf pack to unite the tribes. The period of the Judges begins in earnest with Benjamite Ehud ben Gera and his successor Shamgar ben Anat, ushering in an unequaled eighty-year Pax Judicia. Similarly, the post-exilic period is ushered in by Benjamites Mordecai and Esther (whose family tree shares many names with Saul's), who institute Purim, a new holiday to be celebrated, quite literally, by Jews far and near. In fact, Mordecai is the first person to be labelled "the Jew" even though his paternal line does not go back to Judah.

Thus, we see that Benjamin symbolizes unity and unification. The lone son of Jacob to be born in the Holy Land, the lone son to be innocent of sin in the Joseph episode (as well as any other wrongdoing, according to Talmud Shabbat 55b) fathers the tribe which creates the United Kingdom of Israel and later sticks with Judah when the Ten Tribes split off.

That's what makes the episode of the Concubine of Gibeah so shocking. The Book of Judges ends with the story of this brutal gang rape and murder. The Israelites want the perpetrators, from the Benjamite town of Gibeah, to be brought to justice (Jud. 20:11-14):
So all the men of Israel gathered together at the city as allies. The tribes of Israel sent men throughout the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “How could such a wicked thing take place? Now, hand over the miscreants in Gibeah so we can execute them and purge Israel of wickedness.” But the Benjamites refused to listen to their Israelite brothers. The Benjamites came from their cities and assembled at Gibeah to make war against the Israelites.
Benjamin is a unifying force here as well, but not for good. They go from being a tribe of Israel to an enemy of Israel, all in the name of sticking up for Gibeah. In the ensuing civil war, tens of thousands are killed on both sides, and Benjamin is almost exterminated.

This shows us the limits of ahdut, unity. Yes, the Jewish people have survived for millennia by sticking together. However, that value cannot undermine our basic commitment to justice. Clearly, the Benjamites of Judges 20 thought that the abuse of one woman was a trifling issue, to be ignored for the good of the whole. But covering up episodes of sexual violence does not preserve a society; it rots it from within. Justice, even for one individual, is the concern of the entire society. Without it, what is the purpose of a nation's survival at all?

Search for more information about Benjamin

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Why evolution isn't a problem for Orthodox Jews

I can provide you with dozens of reasons to believe in evolution, and honestly not one of them is also a reason to stop believing in the Torah. You may have to toss out some false (but famous) **interpretations of the torah**, but they're false interpretations, so who cares?

Search for more information about evolution at

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Magic in Midrash

We've inherited scores of Midrashim about how the vestments of the high priest can help bring about atonement for various sins. (See the link below for a post containing an excessively long list of them with my commentary)

I say those midrashim are meant literally, and are all examples of correspondence in sympathetic magic, or the belief that one can influence something based on its relationship or resemblance to another thing. Some examples include beliefs that certain herbs with yellow sap can cure jaundice, that walnuts could strengthen the brain because of the nuts' resemblance to brain, that red beet-juice is good for the blood, that phallic-shaped roots will cure male impotence. (Wikipedia)

The midrashim cited below seem right in line with this, and they were written at a time when sympathetic magic was believed to work. So why not?

(Some of you are going to try and read those midrashim allegorically. The Jewish Encyclopedia will explain why:
whenever the literature of a people has become an inseparable part of its intellectual possession, and the ancient and venerated letter of this literature is in the course of time no longer in consonance with more modern views, to enable the people to preserve their allegiance to the tradition it becomes necessary to make that tradition carry and contain the newer thought as well.

 Search for more information about ###

You never forget your first

A guest post by Y. Bloch
It's true what they say. It's been a quarter-century, but I still feel intimately connected to my first. I was preparing to become a bar mitzva, and my father felt that to become a man in the eyes of the Jewish world, I needed to make my first conquest: Sukka.
The height of Venetian fashion, in a fetching Daniel Bomberg typeset.
Sukka (rhymes with looka) is a Talmudic tractate which discusses Sukkot, the most important Jewish holiday most people have never heard of. Sukkot is light on the histrionics and historicity; instead, quite literally, it's "the time of our rejoicing." Sukka deals with the festival's three central mitzvot: a) chilling in a flora-roofed shelter; b) singing and dancing with the fruit and fronds of the Four Species; c) holding an OG House (of God) Party. Sukka has a great balance of lore and law, of history and hermeneutics. It's not one of those twiggy treatises that's an easy layn for those looking to seal the deal quickly, nor is it one of those intractable tractates that endlessly ponders arcana. Sukka, quite simply, has it all.

I bring this all up not only because of my own quadranscentennial, but because myriads of enthusiastic Talmudists will begin studying Sukka tomorrow, as part of the Daf Yomi system. The idea behind Daf Yomi (not to be confused with Daft Yomi, which involves silently studying Talmud while wearing metallic headgear) is shockingly simple: one folio, one double-sided page, every day of the year. Using this method, it takes about 7 1/2 years to study every tractate in the Babylonian Talmud (with some extras). This ancient practice dates back to the Coolidge administration, when Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Poland first noticed that many tractates were sadly neglected. Yeshivot kept coming back to the same few chapters in the same few treatises, leaving huge expanses of the Sea of Talmud uncharted and unknown. R. Shapiro, launching the project at a conference in Vienna, believed that Daf Yomi would unite and edify world Jewry, saving tractates like Sukka from obscurity.

But has it worked? On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of Jews participate in Daf Yomi at some point; on the other hand, if the point was to broaden the exposure of yeshiva students to obscure material, it has been an abject failure. Daf Yomi became so popular that it is viewed by the yeshiva elite as balebatish, fine for the common folk who only have an hour or so to dedicate to daily Talmud study, but not for the full-time scholars.

So let's review what we expect from a yeshiva curriculum. Scripture? Good luck even finding a volume of the Prophets or Hagiographa; as for the Pentateuch, that's for Sabbath sermonizing, not serious study. Halakha? Don't be silly; that's kid stuff, relegated to a half-hour of independent study before breakfast or supper. Even a rabbinical student preparing for ordination has no reason to open two out of four volumes of the Code of Jewish Law, and on each of the handful of subjects he'll be tested on, he'll only need to know a few dozen chapters out of the remaining 1,100. Philosophy? Most of it is probably heresy, so let's look at only a few pre-approved books; more than an hour a day will certainly mess with your mind.
Essentially, yeshivot, which are supposed to be institutions of higher Jewish learning, ignore three-quarters of Jewish writing. But what about the Talmud? That's their bread and butter, right?

Not quite. See, the Talmud has multiple components. There's the Mishna, the original second-century composition. Then we have the Gemara from a few centuries later, which uses the Mishna as a jumping off-point for discussions of law and lore, in the form of the earlier and more concise Jerusalem Talmud and the later and more comprehensive Babylonian Talmud. Neither the Mishna nor the Jerusalem Talmud are touched in yeshivot, leaving only the Babylonian Talmud, which covers only 33 1/3 (stay weird, Tamid) of the original 60 Mishnaic tractates. So, this quadrant of Jewish thought, further halved both quantitatively and qualitatively, is the overwhelming majority of the yeshiva curriculum. Stunning.

However, that would only be relevant if yeshivot embraced Daf Yomi or some other system that would aim to circumnavigate the Talmud of Babylon. They don't. Most have cycles of their own, which revolve around the six tractates that deal with mostly theoretical cases of torts, business, marriage and divorce. In summertime (zeman kayitz), when the livin' is easy, you might find a yeshiva studying Mo'ed, the division of the Talmud dealing with the Sabbath and festivals, which is chock-full of relevant Jewish law. But Mo'ed ain't ready for prime time.

That's how I got my heart broken, almost eight years after I first made Sukka's acquaintance. I was 19, fresh from my Israeli yeshiva and back in New York, ready to conquer the world. I had spent the previous five years going back and forth between Kiddushin and Ketubot, and I was ready for something fresh and new. I had my seat right in front of one of the leading Talmudic minds of the time, an alumnus of my Israeli yeshiva, known for his inquisitiveness and intellect. And what was on the curriculum that year, breaking all precedent? My beloved Sukka! Finally, a chance to delve deep into the treatise I'd encountered shallowly as a callow youth. The rabbi strode in on day one, a bemused expression on his face, and opened his lecture with "So we're learning Sukka this year." Pause. "That's in Mo'ed." There's your laughline! Ha ha, you've been great, he's here all semester, please tip your shtender.

When I decided to transfer out of this class (and apparently others shared this inclination), a veteran student pulled me aside to set me straight. "It's not his fault, y'know. I mean, it's Sukka."

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at the remarkably uninformed graduates that yeshivot are putting out these days. It's not their fault that only a tiny corner of Jewish thought is deemed worthy of study. But it is our fault if we let that ignorance set the agenda for all of us.

 Search for more information about the Talmud

Monday, February 03, 2014

Avi takes another beating

Do you think anyone at Agudah high command ever sees the things I say about them here? Does it provide them with a moments discomfort? I sort of think I'm pretty easy to ignore, but the Forward isn't. After the jump, you can see how,one of their bloggers, a Frimet Goldberger, responded to the latest Avi.