Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why Do They Leave?

Shulem Deen - before and after - (The Atlantic - 2012)
I have no idea what the statistics are… or whether they are even available. But since there are so many stories of Jews that were once observant becoming non observant, it made me wonder about which demographic is at greater risk for that? Is Hashakfa a factor? Or is leaving observance unrelated to that?

There are those who say that the largest Orthodox demographic to experience this type of loss is Modern Orthodoxy. I can see why that assumption is made. The logic is that the more one is involved with the general non Jewish culture the more likely one is to be influenced by its forbidden enticements. And a college education where one can take courses that are full of heresy can easily sway you away from belief.

So that when a young person from a Modern Orthodox family leaves home to go to college and lives on campus… it’s often all over but the shouting.  Especially in cases where the observance level in a particular home is minimal and not the focus of the family. So it wouldn’t surprise me that young people from this demographic contain the largest number of dropouts.

But based on what one reads in the media one would think that the biggest demographic to lose people from observance is not the Modern Orthodox, but Chasidim. There is story after story about people that were once Chasidim that have become entirely secular. And as if to underscore this perception, a new book (reviewed by Ezra Glinter in the Forward) has been published entitled Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of ex-Chasidic Jews, by Lynn Davidman. The book asks and answers the question of why and how people leave. Interestingly, the focus is more on the emotional rather than the intellectual. 

I have heard many times from formerly Orthodox Jews that they left for intellectual reasons. I’m sure that’s true in many cases. Especially now in the age of the internet where there are tons of websites arguing the skeptic or atheist cause. Once exposed to these formerly taboo questions they ‘see the light’ and declare their former beliefs to be erroneous. Their encounters with these arguments have convinced them. And once there, they do not come back.

Which leads me to a book entitled All Who Go Do Not Return - a memoir by Shulem Deen. His publisher graciously sent me a pre-release copy of his book for review. Shulem was a Skverver Chasid who slowly but surely left observance.  He gives us a fascinating insider glimpse at what it’s like to be a Skverer Chasid. In both positive and negative terms.

He too blames his dropping out of belief and observance on intellectual reasons. He does not believe in God and certainly not in the Torah. His odyssey away from observance is quite fascinating. He was actually a Rebbe in a elementary school in New Square where he once lived. He was married and has several children. He looked and dressed like a Skverer Chasid and lived by their rules – and married that way. Which means he met his wife only briefly before he got married. He had always resented the way in which he was led into marriage. Almost as though he had no choice in whom he would marry.

It is interesting to note that in Shulem’s case it was not a disaffection from Skvere Chasidus that made him leave the fold. He actually loved the lifestyle. He loved the Rebbe’s Tish and all the other trappings of Chasidus. He loved the closeness of the community and the joy of celebrating Judaism despite all the rules of this particular Chasidus. His exposure to heretical though came almost by accident. His beliefs were based on what is called Emunah Peshuta. Unquestioning simple belief. One does not ask questions. 

This is how many Orthodox Jews are raised. But his encounter with a former Skverer Chasid that was involved in Kiruv challenged that mode of belief. He told Shulem that rational Judaism was a far more secure way of maintaining one’s belief. 

Being very bright and a bit of a devil’s advocate he said that simple belief was superior and wanted to show this fellow that his rational system of belief was too full of holes and could easily be disproved. And it should be avoided. They would then have long discussions over a period of time about these things. Once Shulem started debating these issues it occurred to him that his arguments made sense and that the entire religion may be untrue. He went to the internet and devoured all the heretical sources.   

It did not take long for him to reach the conclusion that God and Judaism was all made up by man. It saddened him because he wanted to believe – as he did before. But it was too late. That cat was out of the bag. He maintained a facade belief and observance for quite awhile for purposes of Shalom Bayis. His observance was meticulous in the home. At least at first. But away from home he could eat a ham sandwich. After awhile he started violating Halacha even in his home.

His wife remained  a believer, but his influences in the home overcame his wife’s resistance to them and eventually she went along with his adoption of many of the Skvere’s taboos. Like bringing a radio, TV, movies, newspapers, and the internet into the home. They stayed together for the children. Shulem still looked like a Skever Chasid having a full beard and wearing typical clothing of Chasidim. But he was no longer a believer. Ultimately the couple divorced. And Shulem has become completely secular in attitude and appearance.

On the surface it all seems like his encounter with reason turned him into a non believer. That is the way he presents it. But there is more to the story, that may have played a significant part in his dropping out.

Shulem had unusual parents. They were secular Jews who had become hippies in the sixties. Somewhere along the way they became Balei Teshuva and found their way to Chasidic Judaism, embracing it in all its glory. But their past made them a bit different than the rest of the community of Boro Park where Shulem was raised as a child. For example they were in to health food big time. Lots of vegetables, Nothing like a hot dog or pizza or any processed food would ever be found in their home. 

His father was an intellectual that studied other religions and had many books on those subjects in his personal library at home. He was also involved in Kiruv. Outside of Lubavitch, Chasidim don’t do that. They are discouraged from it because it would mean exposure to the outside world – which they feel could ruin them religiously. His father would often speak to mixed crowds of secular men and women. To great acclaim by the participants.

But his father also had a mental disorder. He was anorexic and eventually died from that disorder. His mother had a difficult time with his father and threatened divorce at one point. Had his father not died, she might have gone through with it.

He was also sent away from his home to a Yeshiva in Williamsburg which was not his parents Chasidus and was kind of rebellious there. At a later point in his adolescence he was sent to a Skverer Yeshiva near Montreal that was very strict and used corporal punishment. His rebellious nature him into trouble there and he was eventually expelled. He actually contemplated dropping out of Judaism at the time. 

But did not go through with it, desiring to establish himself as a worthy member of Skever Chasidus. He begged his way back into that Yeshiva and became a model student. From then on until the point he dropped out years later, he was an exemplary Skverer Chasid. He even once had a goal to become a Talmud Chacham of note and stayed in the Skverer Kollel for as long as he could.

So, it isn’t too hard to imagine that the stage for his departure for observance and belief was already set. Just waiting for the precipitating factor of intellectual inquiry to befall him.  He had in fact started rebelling incrementally against Skevre’s harsh rules even before his encounter with heresy by reading newspapers and listening to the news on the radio.

It is always sad when someone of such intelligence and commitment drops out of observance. Someone that loved his environment.  Someone that loved his family which is now broken.

There are many reasons why someone leaves the fold. Certainly an intellectual reason can be one of them. But based on Shulem Deen’s description of his own life, I doubt that this alone will do it. Because there are a lot of people that have the same encounters and remain believers in God and in the truth of Judaism. For those that don't, who knows if there wasn't some subliminal emotional component that even the individuals themselves didn't recognize?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Kosher Sex

YCT Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer
About 15 years ago, Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote a book called Kosher Sex.   It catapulted him to celebrity status. But he was also roundly criticized for it by most Orthodox rabbis. Now It seems that YCT (Yeshiva Chovevei Torah ) Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer has embarked on a similar path. He is participating in a podcast of similar content.

He is joined by Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, a woman who bills herself as an Orthodox sex therapist.  According to the Jewish Week she was profiled in the New York Times about her work with Charedim. I’m not sure there is any difference between what Rabbi Boteach did and what Rabbi Linzer is doing. Other than the fact that Rabbi Linzer’s efforts are free to the public online and available to anyone who wishes to access it.

I have to wonder about the propriety of this. I have my issues with YCT. And have spelled them out quite clearly in the past. One of them in fact raises questions about a hard line being crossed. A line with respect to the tolerance of rabbis in their midst that have cast the the events at Sinai into the realm of fiction.

But leaving all that aside, a new issue has arisen that is keeping YCT firmly implanted in controversy. The Jewish Week reports about a new website jointly hosted by YCT and JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) that features a program called the Joy of Text… a play on the title of a very popular book of the 70s entitled the Joy of Sex - an illustrated sex manual by British author Alex Comfort, PhD. That should give you some idea about the purpose of this podcast.

It isn’t a program about Taharas Mishpacha - family purity laws. That would be fine. It is basically a a sex manual for Orthodox Jews. It features Issues like  the permissibility of sexual fantasies... which kind are permitted and which are forbidden and whether sex toys are permitted and in what context.

I’m not quite sure what to make of it. On the one hand, there ought to be more information about these things disseminated to young people before they get married. My guess is that there is precious little of it now. I am told by people involved in these things that that these issues are indeed discussed. But my guess is that they fall woefully short of touching the entire gamut of issues involved. Knowledge is power. Halachic knowledge is Halachic power.

So at first blush it would seem that there is everything right about this. Nothing to criticize. Sex is an important part of marriage. It ought not be put on the back burner of educating young men and women about marriage. Understandably, however, most people are reluctant to talk about it. Including, and perhaps especially those that ought to be – Mechanchim.  Teachers who mold the character of our young.  That makes it kind of a conundrum. But it shouldn’t be.

My reservation is in the public way it is being done. And that one of the participants is the Rosh HaYeshiva of YCT. Is it really appropriate for a Rosh HaYeshiva to be talking publicly about sexual fantasies and sex toys?  Even if his entire purpose is to provide the Halachic perspective on this?

I’m conflicted about this particular way of tackling this very sensitive issue. And yet I think there is a need. Perhaps instead of a podcast it might be more appropriate to encourage people to consult with rabbinic experts and a therapist privately about these matters. 

On the other hand maybe this is the only way to do it effectively so that it reaches the maximum number of people. Isn’t that better than taking a chance on doing something that is forbidden? Or not doing something that is permitted because of preconceived notions that it is forbidden?

Does that outweigh the impropriety of a Rosh HaYeshiva talking about sex toys in public? I don’t know. Rabbi Boteach thought his way was fine. I suppose that Rabbi Linzer thinks that his way is fine too. But I wonder.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When Your Spouse Loses Faith

One of many books reconciling science and Torah
What if your spouse changes? What if you married one person and they turn out to be someone else? Should you stay married? The simple answer is no. Deceit is always a deal breaker. 

But let us take another similar scenario. Let us say that when you got married, you and your spouse were on the same page religiously. But then things started changing. At first the changes were subtle and minor. But eventually the changes were such that one spouse became unrecognizable from what they were when they got married. And what if there are children? Is divorce the best option? Or tolerance? And if tolerance is advised, how much before one considers divorce?

There is an article in Mishpacha Magazine supplement Family First on just this subject wherein a prominent Orthodox rabbi and a social worker were interviewed. I thought I would express my own views here.

My guess is that this scenario happens a lot more these days than it ever used to. That’s because access to information on any and every subject is available instantly to anyone at the click of a mouse. 

I have noticed that there are more than a few people commenting on this blog that were once believers and unquestioningly observant - that have changed after having questions raised by what they saw on various websites. Websites that deal with contradictions between science and Torah or websites dealing with modern scholarship of the Torah have caused more than one observant believer to stray. Those unprepared to deal with these matters often erroneously conclude that everything they were taught and took for granted – is not necessarily so. 

While this topic is an important one it is not really the subject of the post. I am not here to counter those mistaken conclusions other than to say that I have had similar questions raised by my own encounters with these things and came to different conclusions. I seek both Emes and Emunah and have been able to find the former without the expense of giving up the latter. Unfortunately that is not the case with far too many people. Especially those who have been sheltered from these issues and then come upon them suddenly.

Back to the issue at hand. What does one do when a spouse concludes that everything they were ever taught about God and Judaism is a big lie? And because of that, they no longer observe the Mitzvos of the Torah?

According to the above mentioned article, it seems that the predominance of rabbinic opinion on this subject is that divorce is not necessarily the answer. If the parent that lost their faith is willing to accommodate the parent that hasn’t, and the marriage is otherwise loving to both the spouse and the children, the best advice is to stay together, be tolerant and compromise. 

This means that as long as the changed non observant spouse understands that they are the one that changed and respects the observant spouse wishes to keep an observant home, the observant spouse should allow the non observant spouse his space.

For example, the home would be expected to stay Kosher. Shabbos would have to be free of any overt violations by the non observant spouse. But the nonobservant spouse should be allowed the freedom to no longer be observant on a personal level in areas that do not affect the children. So for example if a non observant husband no longer wants to put on Tefilin or Daven, he should not be harangued about it. If he chooses to eat Treif outside the home, it’s his business. 

One thing that should be quickly abandoned is insistence on various Chumros if they become a contentious issue. Here are some examples:

If anon observant husband starts bringing non Chalav Yisroel products into the home, the wife should look the other way. 

If a husband chooses to no longer wear a Kipa, the wife should look the other way. (Although a caring husband should at least wear one around the house in front of his children). 

If a television was once taboo, and a nonobservant spouse wants to bring it into their house, that too should be tolerated. (Of course good parenting is still required of both parents in terms of controlling what the children are allowed to watch and how much. Here too the changed spouse should give way to the unchanged one about what is and isn’t appropriate content.) Same thing with the Internet.

Even Halachos that do not affect one personally should be tolerated. If for example a non observant wife no longer wishes to cover her hair, the husband should look the other way.

There are of course lines than cannot be crossed that can end a marriage. But there is plenty of room for compromise.

Obviously this is not ideal. The children will pick up when say a father is no longer observant. Especially as they get older. But the alternative is a broken fatherless home. If there is no abuse and the father is a loving caring individual that is good to his children and wife, the family should remain intact. That seems to be the preponderance of rabbinic opinion and it is mine too.

What about the possibility that somehow the children will pick up the father’s doubts about the Torah and start questioning its veracity? That danger does exist. But in situations like this compromise requires that the changed spouse retains his original commitment to raise his children a certain way and keep his doubts to himself as much as possible.

Nonetheless questions about why their father is no longer observant will surely arise and require a serious response at some point. When children are very young they can be told that the reasons are too complicated for them to understand but that their father is a good man and still loves them. 

As they get older, they might want better answers. And who knows where that will lead. But to break up an otherwise good family relationship over this is an even more dangerous to the spiritual health of a child. That is why I think that it is the better part of wisdom is to tolerate a non observant spouse than it is to be rid of him and his religiously negative influence on the children.

That this situation is not ideal is obvious. But when it comes to your children - compromise in the religious area in order to save the family is the better way to go.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Starving to Get Married

Rabbi Shmuel Jablon (Jerusalem Post)
‘I only want to date girls that are a size two’. This is a statement burned into my memory. It was made by a young Yeshiva student over 20 years ago about the type of girl he wished to marry. This was of course not the only thing that was important to him. Obviously the things that are important to any serious young man about to embark on his future as a family man were important to him too. But if a girl was even slightly above that dress size, it was a non starter for him. He eventually found what he was looking for, became a Charedi Rosh HaYeshiva in Israel, and recently made a wedding for his oldest daughter.

I bring up this anecdote to point out what has become one f the most distressing problems of our time.  From an article in the Jerusalem Post
Food is such an integral part of Jewish ritual that it would seem impossible for the young Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox to hide the fact that they are starving themselves due to eating disorders (EDs). Potentially fatal anorexia is apparently growing among the observant in Israel and the Diaspora. 
As noted, the focus on how thin a girl is – is not limited to the secular or even Modern Orthodox world. It affects everyone living in the 20th century that is influenced by western culture. If a young woman is even a few unnoticeable pounds overweight, she may very well be overlooked by potential Shiduchim. And this problem is not new – as my 20 year old anecdote shows. Which kind of undermines all those attempts at insularity from the world outside. But that is another matter.

Anorexia Nervosa has become an increasing problem in western culture. It is a problem that no doubt affects the Orthodox Jewish world as much as it does the rest of the world. A person suffering from this disorder (usually female but not always) has a distorted body image. When they look in the mirror, they see someone that is overweight, no matter how thin they are. And they start down a road that can potentially be fatal – by eating at starvation levels. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Now I should quickly add that cases of anorexia are usually a function of another mental disorder. 50% of anorexics suffer from depression. But I can’t help but feel that the culture of our times contributes mightily to this disorder. How can it not when society worships the prototypical female body type of a young Hollywood celebrity. This worship filters down into even the moist insular community. Which is why a young Charedi Tamlud Chacham can reject any date under a size two. From the Jerusalem Post
When men are offered a shidduch, the first thing many ask for is the girl’s height, weight and dress size. This is a more powerful an influence on the observant than TV, the Internet and models, as they are less exposed to this…” 
Ideally, anyone with half a brain should know that dress size is about the least important feature one should be seeking in a woman. This is not to say that physical attraction doesn’t matter. Of course it does.  But to put so much emphasis on it the exclusion of even the slightest deviation from a specific dress size shows that there is something terribly wrong in our world… not unlike the rest of the world.

I realize that not everyone has this ‘standard ‘for their Shidduchim. There are a lot of young people that get married to a variety of body types. Both in society at large and in Orthodoxy. But I believe it is far more common than we are willing to admit. And I’m not sure we can do anything about it. To quote the perverse comedian Woody Allen when he was asked how he could divorce his wife and marry their step-daughter, Soon Yi: ‘The heart wants what it wants!’

Many young women understandably come to believe that being ‘fashion model’ thin is about the most important thing she can offer to a potential Shidduch. And thus be more susceptible to an eating disorder.  A distorted body image can precipitate clinical depression in someone that has a predilection to it.  And anorexia may be the condition that results.

I think we ought to be better than that. How to instill the kind of emotional maturity in our young men that will not look so much at dress size is the $64 dollar question. We can educate intellectually and spiritually. But how do we educate emotionally?

In the meantime there is a huge problem that often ends up with a fatality. And that needs to be addressed.

A few months ago I hosted an advertisement about a new organization called Merkaz Female. It is headed by Rabbi Shmuel Jablon, someone I know fairly well from Chicago. He is an innovative young educator that has made Aliyah and saw a need. Rabbi Jablon was perceptive to this problem because of personal experience. His oldest daughter, Leah, suffered from it.  Rabbi Jablon, Leah, and his organization are now a feature story in the Jerusalem Post.  A major part of the article is an interview with Leah. She discusses her personal experience with anorexia. I think it ought to be read by everyone.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Netanyahu, Obama, and Iran

Nasrallah and Khameni (2013) - Is Islamic rule the world's destiny?
There is a lot of controversy about House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of congress.  The controversy surrounds the fact that Speaker Boehner did not consult with the President before inviting him and that he accepted. Critics are saying that it was not right for Boehner to invite Netanyahu nor was it right for him to accept. It is a slap in the face to the President, they say.

Those who have a visceral hatred for the Netanyahu will surely accuse him of being a political opportunist who is shamelessly exploiting this invitation for his own political benefit. Being invited by the legislators of the most powerful nation on earth to address them on one of the most important issues of our day will surly boost his prestige among voters in Israel. And that is reason - they will cynically say - that Netanyahu is really doing this.  And to top it off he is slapping the President in the face by accepting this invitation.

One unidentified member of the White House staff characterized Netanyahu just that way – and even threatened consequences. The White House has repudiated that as untrue and not their actual view. But President is still refusing to meet with him – citing a historical precedent of never inviting leaders of foreign countries just before an election there.

I am not a Netanyhau hater. I actually agree with the majority of the Israeli people about him. Recent polls show that his party,the Likud,  will handily win the next election making his re-election as prime minister assured. Which will also make him the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history. (It should also be clear that people who vote for Likud are doing it mostly because they want to see Netanyahu returned to office.)

So if I were a Netanyahu hater, I would rethink my attitude about him. Whatever complaints and criticism of him one may have, they apparently do not match the view of the people that will actually return him to office.  This is not to say that his policies can’t be criticized. But it should mean that the visceral hatred is misplaced. Maybe… just maybe the Israeli people might be a little closer to the situation and are voting accordingly. 

I also think the so-called enmity between the 2 leaders is over-blown. Sure, there are some fundamental disagreements between them. But that should not necessarily mean that they hate each other. And I don’t think they actually do hate each other. But that is somewhat beside the point.

The question is, do Speaker Boehner and Prime Minster Netanyahu deserve the criticism they are getting from some quarters? My answer is absolutely not.

There are 3 separate but equal branches of government. The legislative branch does not need permission from the executive branch. They can invite anyone they wish to address their august body. The Executive branch does not have a say here. Nor do I blame Netanyahu for accepting the invitation. As he said, he will speak anywhere he invited any time about his view of dealing with the nuclear threat presented by Iran.

While one can disagree with his perspective, one cannot say that it has no merit. No country has more to lose by a nuclear Iran than Israel does. And the US has nothing to gain by it either. A nuclear Iran would destabilize the entire Middle East which would probably cause other Arab nations to go nuclear. That would endanger the entire world.

And we all know that Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map by any means necessary. A nuclear weapon in Iran’s hands would certainly go a long way towards that.  So if anyone has a dog in this hunt, it’s Israel. And because they do, they may very well have the best intelligence on the matter. So addressing the legislators of the most powerful nation in the world should be something sought after, not criticized, or snubbed. Instead of snubbing Netanyahu, the President ought to be seeking his counsel – even if in the end he doesn’t agree with him.

The excuse about not wanting to influence the Israeli election is just that - an excuse. But even if his reason was legitimate, hearing Netanyahu’s views should over-ride it. The leader of a country whose very existence is at stake should Iran go nuclear ought not to be snubbed about this matter. He should have over-looked the fact that he was not consulted and taken the opportunity to meet with his closest ally in the Middle East. So I am disappointed in him. 

Less than 2 weeks ago we saw Islamic extremists murder 17 people. Today we witnessed yet against another beheading of an innocent man by ISIS (or ISIL or IS… or whatever they call themselves now). It’s time for the leader of the free world recognize that Islamic fundamentalist extremism is behind all of this. And Iran is a government led by fundamentalists that celebrate such extremists. And export it. And finance it.

This isn’t about Al Qaida, or ISIS or any other single group. It is about an ideology that supports and promotes the idea of Islam ruling the world. And Iran is their model. The only dispute among them is which form of Isalm will rule, but either way, it should be Islam. Until the US and the rest of the world recognize this and acts accordingly, things will only get worse.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Greed is Not Good

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in FBI custody (AP photo) 
Illinois is not exactly known for honest politicians. We have had our share of greedy scoundrels that have used their office for illegal gain via extortion or bribes. Some of them were actually among the most highly honored public servants.  In one case a corrupt governor was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a serious nomination. And yet he was convicted of corruption and served time in prison.

And who can forget Rod Blagojevich who was caught by the FBI trying to extort money from contenders for Barack Obama’s vacant seat in the US Senate. 

So yes, we have had our share of embarrassments.  Illinois has a long history of corrupt governors. Just to name the ones that were convicted since I moved to Chicago back in 1962: Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, George Ryan, and Rod Blagojevich.

But it is a prominent politician in New York that although not the governor, embarrasses me the most.  This story has been plastered across every major periodical and media news source. Here’s one from an AP report on the CBS News website
New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested Thursday on corruption charges and accused of using his position as one of the most powerful politicians in Albany to obtain millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks masked as legitimate income. 
The 70-year-old Silver was taken into custody around 8 a.m. at the FBI's New York City office, FBI spokesman Peter Donald confirmed. Silver faces five counts, including conspiracy and bribery, and the charges carry a potential penalty of 100 years in prison.
In a criminal complaint, authorities said Silver abused his power and "obtained about $4 million in payments characterized as attorney referral fees solely through the corrupt use of his official position." 
I know that in America, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Mr. Silver should be given the same courtesy. He of course denies that he did anything wrong. (As did the above mentioned Illinois governors).

But in high profile cases like these the FBI is not going to have anyone arrested if they do not have strong evidence of his guilt. I do not recall anyone that was ever arrested in a case like this that wasn’t eventually found guilty in court.

But… given the presumption of innocence, I will proceed with the caveat that what I am about to say is only the case if he is indeed found guilty.

If he is guilty, then once again we have a high profile Orthodox Jew who is apparently a crook. And once again we have Chilul HaShem. Which is always the case when someone who professes to follow the Torah gets caught in a crime.

The name Sheldon Silver has over the years been prominently mentioned in Jewish periodicals and newspapers like the Jewish Press. It was with pride that I read about an observant Jew who rose to great heights in politics and become a high profile and powerful public servant. It was comforting to have an Orthodox Jew in government that would have Jewish interests in mind as well as the interests of all his constituents.  

Whenever I read a story about him, I thought, ‘He’s one of us’! …a religious Jew that was popular enough with his constituents to be elected and reelected to his office. And popular enough with his peers to be chosen by them as the New York State Assembly Speaker. Time after time. What a Kiddush HaShem, I thought. But now that Kiddush HaShem has been transformed into an embarrassing Chilul HaShem. 

Why did he do it (if indeed he did)? There is a one word answer: Greed.

And because of that greed, he has joined an illustrious gang of thieves who have served in government. Except that this one wears a black hat!

Shame on him.  For he has brought shame upon the Jewish people.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Kiruv from Without and from Within

There is a very disturbing story in Kveller about Kiruv. Kiruv is what we generally call reaching out to Jews who are not observant.

First let me say that there are many fine organizations that do tremendous work in this area. They inspire people to become more religious by using honey rather than vinegar. By showing  young Jews with no background the beauty of Judaism instead of focusing on the fire and brimstone, many unaffiliated Jews have become observant and have given meaning to their lives.

But there is occasionally a downside resulting in unintended consequences as the story in Kveller tells us. Sometimes the parents of a newly observant Jew - commonly called a Bal Teshuva  (BT)- or returnee to observant Judaism - become alienated from their children.  There are several possibilities that can explain why this does occasionally happen.

The author of that Kveller story is the mother of a young woman that became a Bal Teshuva. She describes the events that led her to see Kiruv as akin to kidnapping! She talks of the  great lengths she went to accommodate her daughter’s new found religious lifestyle. But to no avail. Her daughter became completely alienated from her. She was obviously very hurt by that and blamed the Kiruv group that reached out to her daughter for that.

Rabbi Avi Shafran has written a response to that article in the Forward.  He basically says that there are several possibilities that might explain what happened which do not necessary entail  ‘kidnapping’.

First he said that there are always at least 2 versions of a story and wonders if the daughter would have described the situation differently. He also mentioned the fact that legitimate Jewish outreach actually encourages BTs to retain and even enhance their relationship with their parents. But in some cases people use their new found religious observance as an excuse to deal with a pre-existing problematic parent child relationship.

There are other reasons that might explain it.  Sometimes a Kiruv organization will insist on its own Chumros without telling them that they are only stringencies and not basic Halacha. Which I find to be unscrupulous. That can cause unnecessary friction between a parent and child.

There is also the possibility that a religious cult like Lev Tahor will use Kiruv as a tactic to gain control over someone’s life. Which of course requires severing all past relationships. Especially those of parents and family. They will convince cult members that the negative influences of their parents home requires them to sever any relationship with them.

These are just a few of the possibilities that might help explain what happened between this BT and her mother.

One thing is clear to me. Any legitimate Kiruv organization will never try to sever the relationship with a parent. The opposite is true. What often happens is that even the parents become observant too. But even if they don’t they will respect their children’s choices and accommodate them.  The love between parent and child remains intact.

This article actually raised a question in my mind involving Kiruv of another kind. One that usually takes place in Israel during what has come to be known as the gap year. Which is the year a religious high school graduate takes to study Torah before he comes back to continue his education. The phenomenon is sometimes referred to as ‘Flippng out’.  A child will go to Israel with one Hashkafa and comes back with an entirely different one.

The reaction by some parents to this is similar to the reaction by the mother of the BT in the Kveller story. If a parental home is one with a Modern Orthodox orientation where for example higher education is valued along with Torah study - and the child now rejects higher education in its entirety opting instead to continue Torah study only -  does a parent have the right to feel that the values he taught that child have been rejected by him because he was in fact ‘re-eductated’  by his Torah teachers in Israel?

Is that the same thing as a non observant parent dealing with a child that became observant?

There are similarities. But I think there is a major difference that justifies a religious parent being more upset by the move to the right than there is for a non observant parent being upset that their child became a BT.

One might argue that the opposite is true since the break from the past is greater in the latter than it is in the former.  But if one looks at it from a Halachic perspective (of all Jews being responsible for each other) convincing a fellow Jew to become observant  is far more important than convincing him to be more Machimir. Or worse changing his Hashkafa and in the process denigrating the Hashkafos of his parents.  

There are those who say that the term ‘Flipping out’ is a misnomer. That young people coming back from their gap year in Israel are not flipping out at all. They are just becoming more serious about their Judaism and more conscientious about Halacha. If that is the case I would have no problem with it. We should all be more serious about our Judaism and conscientious about Halachic observance.

But what happens in far too many cases is that young people coming back from Israel adopt an entirely different set of values that are anathema to the values with which they were taught at home. And if they go far enough to the right - these values that can harm them. Even though their children might see these values as the ultimate expression of their Judaism.

For example what if a child had always aspired to any given vocation or career because of an aptitude and interest in it. And therefore sought the higher education required to achieve it. But while in Israel he is convinced to abandon those aspirations as secondary to the ‘true calling’ of every Jew to sit and learn 24/7. And he is also encouraged to have as many children as humanly possible. 

That child will be harmed. He will miss his true calling. He will lack a decent well rounded education. Aand perhaps most importantly he will be unable to support his large family. He will have to rely on charity, free loan societies and the generosity of their parents that in many cases bleed themselves dry financially to help that child. (Who wants to see their children starve?)

So it is quite understandable to upset at ‘Flipping out’.  Because that can very easily lead to a life of poverty. And worse a dysfunctional family where children go OTD.

So when it comes to ‘Kiruv’ by the right of children from Modern Orthodox backgrounds I behooves us to know the score.  Parents must do their due diligence and find out where recruiters from Israeli Yeshivos are coming from. They should find out what their real intentions are… and what the actual Hashkafos being taught there are. Recruiters can often mislead parents about their real intentions.

Look  at their products. What are their ‘graduates’ like when they come back? Was there any change? What was that change?

They should also talk to parents whose Hashkafos are similar to their own that have sent their children to a Yeshiva in Israel. Ask them if they are happy with the result… and see what that result actually is.

The gap year can be a very positive and productive period of growth in ones Judaism. Nothing wrong with becoming more serious. But when it leads to a radical departure from the Hashkafos you tired to instill in your children. The consequences could be devastating.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Torah Only? They Aren't Kidding

Is that all there is?
It is almost as if Torah Study in the Charedi world has degenerated into some sort of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Shocking as though this statement might be one would be hard pressed to see it any other way. It is worshipped to the exclusion of all else. Literally. Nothing else matters. 

While some areas outside of Torah study may be permissible, (like supporting one’s family by working) they are certainly not of much value and practically ignored by Charedi leaders and their surrogates in the Kensset. It is the study of Torah that they entirely focus upon – almost ignoring everything else.

Lest anyone think I am exaggerating, all they need do is listen to an interview of MK Rabbi Moshe Gafne of the Charedi political party, Yahadut HaTorah. This is the party that Charedim are required to vote for if they want to retain their Charedi credentials.  Rabbi Gafne was interviewed on the Israeli radio station Kol B'Rama (KB). It was conducted in Hebrew and can be heard at the Hebrew website Kikar HaShabbat. It has been and translated on YWN. Here are some selected nuggets from that interview:

Moshe Gafne explained from his perspective there is no such thing as ‘working chareidi’.

Gafne
I do not accept the categorization. There are those who opt to leave yeshiva and join the working community.

KB
Are they called chareidim?

Gafne
No they are no(t). I do not accept this. It does not exist. One who does not learn in kollel and works has left. 

…There are children who are not accepted for one reason or another. Sometimes because the parents work, at times other reasons …

One can go to work and that is fine but they are not the same as those immersed in limud.
In the time of the Chassam Sofer there were those who worked and those who did not but the difference is they all adhered to his word, unlike today…

I do not accept the category. There is no such thing as working chareidim and I do not need an asifa. This is the fact.

KB
But these people do not know who to vote for? Who represents them? …Can you admit there is a group that feels Yahadut Hatorah is now their home, that you do not represent them? Perhaps the people Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai are working to enlist?

Gafne
It is not a “group”. There is no group like this…

KB
Rav Gafne you are avoiding the issue. Is there such a thing as working chareidim?

Gafne
No there is not. There are chareidim who adhere to gedolei yisrael. That is it.

KB
Have you visited the Kiryat Ono Chareidi College?

Gafne
No. It is not my job. My job is to concern myself with the needs of lomdei Torah and that is it. One wishing to attend a chareidi college may but it is not my job. I do not represent academics.

KB
That is exactly the point. That is what they say. You and Yahadut Hatorah does not represent them. Don’t you understand this is how they feel? They are looking for representation.

Gafne
From my perspective I represent them too but not regarding academics

KB
No you do not and that is where we started. They are without representation

Gafne
They must consult with their rav, the same rabbonim who permitted them to attend a college, even a chareidi one. We have to worry about the lomdei Torah for that is our goal and our future. I do not encourage academics and it is not my job...

For me it is ideology. It has not and will not change no matter how good they are. I am here for lomdei Torah, not academics. Since the lomdei Torah keep us all going and they are targeted [by the government] it is my job to assist them, no one else...

…I follow what I was taught by Maran HaRav Shach and do my best to assist anyone and everyone that comes to me.

KB
I never heard you stutter like today... You are in an untenable situation. Perhaps it is time to reconsider and look at the generation and it is time to change things around

Gafne
… there is nothing to change, not even one millimeter. This is what it is and will continue to do. This is our job and our responsibility.

Well if there was any doubt about how the Charedi world looks at those – even of their own people – that are not in full time Kollel, this should settle it. They have lost their Charedi credentials. This is the legacy of Rav Shach. And it is still being followed to the letter by Charedi leaders and their politicians. 

The problem of course (as I’ve said many times) is that the fruit of their labor is a bitter pill for them to swallow. Extreme poverty that seems to be increasing every year by leaps and bounds. 

Yet another article in the Forward reminds us about the Taub Center report that found the poverty rate in Israel among Charedim increasing to 66% in 2013, up from 60% in 2012.

I do not understand the kind of thinking that Rabbi Gafne has expressed. Does he really believe what he is saying?  Does he really believe that this is what God wants of His people? To study Torah all day long in increasing poverty? This and only this?! Does he really believe there is so little value in anything else? Medicine? Scientific research? Supporting one’s family? Protecting the public welfare via the police and army? …all not worthy of any support in the Charedi world?

And this is what the Torah world in America want’s to emulate?!

In my view this kind of thinking is obsessive. It is compulsive. And it is counter to the values of the Torah to ignore anything else but its own study. Maybe at some deep level even Rabbi Gafne realizes that. Maybe that’s why this interview made him stutter.

Update
It appears that the YWN transaltion is inaccurate. This post was based on the assumption that it was. He did not say that there is no such thing as a Charedi worker. He only said that he does not accept that as a separate category. But he did say that working Charedim are second tier.

This does not take away from the fact that Rabbi Gafne’s words indicate that in the Charedi world there is an unhealthy obsession with Limud Hatorah (to the exclusion of all else)  that borders on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

When Piety Becomes Foolish

Where's Ima?
There is a famous anecdote recorded in the Gemara (Sotah 21b) that tells us about the concept of Chasid Shoteh (a pious fool). It goes something like this: What is a Chasid Shoteh? If a man sees a woman drowning and says ‘it is improper to gaze at her and save her’ thereby letting her drown - he is a pious fool.

This seems to be the direction the most pious Jews among us are moving. They are willing to let women ‘drown’ if it means ‘gazing at them’.  An example of this kind of attitude is the fact that the word ‘breast’ is considered Nivul Peh even in the context of breast cancer. Increasingly in many right wing circles this disease is called ‘the woman’s disease’.  From an article in the Times of Israel
Because of this extreme take on modesty, women are less aware, get fewer mammograms, and often do not do breast exams. The rate of death from breast cancer is estimated at 30% higher among Charedi women who also have the lowest life expectancy in Israel. 
I would call this attitude an expression of the concept of Chasid Shoteh. And we are not talking about one individual here. We are talking about the fastest growing segment in all of Orthodox Jewry, Charedim of both Chasidic and Lithuanian Yeshivish extraction. The extremists in those communities are growing and expanding their reach. The Charedi world is moving to the right at an alarming pace. And increasingly adopting these attitudes. 

Now more than ever, women are being systematically erased from Charedi society as though they do not exist. Which is what has generated a new political party of Charedi women. I guess if there is such a thing as Charedi feminists, these women are it. More about that later.

The above mentioned article was written by Shoshanna Keats Jaskol, who describes herself as ‘an American Israeli… and seeker of truth’ And she loves her people enough to ‘call out the nonsense’. This is my kind of Jew. She has written one of the best descriptions and critiques of this phenomenon I have ever read. It is hard hitting and true. It should be read by everyone, especially by Charedim.

Mrs. Jaskol begins by saying that the practice of erasing women from the public eye is a fanaticization of the concept of ‘guarding your eyes’ which means that we should take care to avoid looking at things which may lead us to sin. But instead of making their community more holy: 
(I)t instead has the opposite effect, making every interaction between genders a potentially sexual -and thus sinful – one and effectively renders any normal interaction between the sexes impossible.
The influence this community has goes far beyond their own world. Pictures of women are increasingly disappearing in magazines, books and periodical at an alarming rate. Magazines whose publishers may not be as extreme nevertheless cater to those segments that are and have made it their own policy to not publish any pictures of a woman. The most extreme examples of which were in the recent photo-shopping out any woman that participated in that protest march in France. 

 Here are a few more examples from her article about this phenomenon that when taken in the aggregate should make moderate Charedim furious.  From that article: 
In some communities, women’s names are not printed. Not in publications and not in announcements such as wedding invitations. 
Posters, campaigns and billboards with women on them have so regularly been defaced that advertising companies stopped running them due to financial losses, which is exactly what the extremists wanted. A baby formula even stopped printing an outline of a mother holding her baby. 
Booklets put out by certain cities have zero women or girls in them. To the point that the city actually looks like a city of homosexuals and pedophiles (not to equate the two) — with nary a female in sight.
Pamphlets published by health care providers within these neighborhoods also exclude women and girls. One recent booklet showcased four neighborhood doctors- the men having pictures next to their next to their profile. The female? A large white blank spot stands where her picture should be. 
Books have also begun excluding females. A book we received as a ‘gift’ from a local organization depicts a Shabbat table- completely female free. The entire book dedicated to the Shabbat- a day of family and Torah- is devoid of even one girl or woman. Where is the Ima?? 
An entire generation is being taught that women and girls should not be seen because seeing them can lead to sin. Women and LITTLE GIRLS are being objectified- sexualized- and erased. 
When a little girl is told that her picture cannot be shown because it is not proper, she learns she is an object. Something that by nature can cause sin and so she must be concealed. 
When little boys hear that they must not look at girls, they learn that girls are for one thing –sex and that men are incapable of controlling themselves and so cannot interact with a female without it being sexual. 
I don’t usually excerpt as heavily as I did here. But this is an important message. Which brings me back to the new Charedi women’s party in Israel. From Ha'aretz:
Heading the party, called “B’Zhutan: Haredi Women Making Change” is Ruth Colian, 33, a veteran social activist and feminist who declared that this was a “historic” step in a mission to “guarantee representation in the Knesset for ultra-Orthodox women.
To say I support it is an understatement. The exaggerated and extreme measures increasingly taken by the Charedi world in this matter has to be countered. Enough damage has been done. 

It is so sad that these pious Charedi women had to resort to taking matters into their own hands at the risk of being ostracized. Which I am sure they will be if they haven’t been already. But they had to take this step in my view. Apparently not a single Charedi party has paid any attention to the negative effects the growing extremes of modesty has had on women. Except to proactively and tacitly support it.

Is the high mortality rate for Charedi women in Israel not enough to move them away from such extremes? I guess not. It seems as though the opposite is true. The more extreme the measure - the better they like it.

The chances of this new female Charedi party winning even one seat in the Kenesset is low. But if enough people vote for them, they may actually reach the required threshold for a seat. These women have a right to be heard… and heard as Charedim! It may not be a bad idea for some in the National Religious community to vote for this party. Let them have the power they deserve and are unable to get.

It is time for the Charedi world to stop being so pious in this matter at the expense of their women – and in the end at the expense of their children as well. Both male and female.  Because such piety is foolish.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Yoetzet or Rabbi?

Efrat's new spiritual leader, Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an Modern Orthodox Rabbi who does not compromise his principles. He showed his mettle when at age 23 was approached by New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue (LSS) to serve as their spiritual leader. LSS was a Conservative Shul and did not have a Mechitza at the time. His condition was that they install a Mechitza and the Shul become Orthodox. They agreed and the Shul has been Orthodox since.

Rabbi Riskin has many other accomplishments – including being in the forefront of the movement to free soviet Jewry in the 60s and 70s. An ardent Religious Zionist, he made Aliya in 1982 and settled in the city of Efrat where he serves with distinction as Chief Rabbi to this day.  He prides himself as a student of Rav Joseph Dov Solovietchik who gave him Semicha.

But he is not without controversy.  One of his innovations was the creation of a Women’s Teffila Group at LSS. This is a women’s only prayer group that has taken on some of the modalities of a men’s Minyan. Modalities like Kriyas HaTorah and giving women Aliyos. Even though Rav Soloveitchik was strongly opposed to such innovations, he nevertheless gave Rabbi Riskin guidance on how to set it up Halachicly – realizing that they were going to do it anyway with or without Rabbis Riskin and Soloveitchik.  

But now Rabbi Riskin is involved in a new controversy. And I’m not sure what to make of it. He has appointed a woman as a spiritual leader in Efrat. He is not calling her a Rabbi. But he has clearly given her the duties of one in the area of deciding Jewish law. He said her purpose will primarily be to answer Shailos (Halachic questions) that women might have with respect to family purity. These laws are often embarrassing for a woman to present to a male rabbi. Women might be a lot more comfortable presenting them to a woman.

That is why the Yoetzet was created. A Yoatzet is someone that has studied those laws well and is equipped to answer commonly asked questions. For the more difficult ones they consult with experienced Poskim that will  guide them. This is an innovation I have always supported. That’s because it is a sorely needed niche that will improve Taharas HaMishpacha in many families heretofore too embarrassed to ask Shailos. 

It is not about being a rabbi. It is about being a Halachic adviser to women in specific situations. Much like the Rebbetzins of old  who were able to answer many Shailos presented to them because of their relationship with their husbands who were asked many such Shailos. The only difference is that unlike a Rebbetzin, a Yoeztet is specially trained for it.  Making the appointment of a Yoetzet an overall communal improvement in observing Halacha.

But Rabbi Riskin’s selection of Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld seems to have crossed the line. Dr. Rosenfeld is far more than a Yoetzet. She is being billed as a spiritual leader.  For all intents and purposes she is a rabbi – even though he does not call her that.

If this is the case, he has broken with tradition and his mentor, Rav Soloveitchik. I don’t know if this is his intent. But I don’t see any other way to characterize it.

So I am disappointed. Here is a man who has done so much for his people. A man of principle that will not compromise. A man that I admired… and still do. And yet, he seems to have crossed a line. Same as another principled individual, Rabbi Avi Weiss who ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first female rabbi - and founded a Yeshiva for that purpose that Rabba Hurwitz heads.

Had Rabbi Riskin just appointed her Efrat’s Yoetzet, it would have been fine. But by calling her a spiritual leader he has gained nothing other than giving Jewish feminists a boost. Which will surely increase controversy in Israel.  And I cannot celebrate that.