Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Balance and Extremism in Judaism

The issue of extremism and moderation is being discussed in the comments section of the previous post, and I would like to dedicate a post of my own to the subject. I would divide the topic into the following parts:

  • Cosmic Balance
  • Personal Avodah
  • Communal Decsions
  • Tolerance For Others
  • Bloggers and Extremism

Cosmic Balance

There is tension and balance in the physical universe. Hashem provides balance between opposing forces in nature, and regulates the movement of ocean waves, gravitational forces, and motions of the planets. Perhaps this can be the meaning in the blessing of Yotzeir Ohr, which speaks of light and darkness, and then mentions peace.

Rabbi Shimon Leiberman writes about the Divine attribute of Tiferes:

Tiferet then is not a "compromise." A compromise has no overriding vision of integration. Rather, when two sets of horns are implacably locked, one whittles down enough of each to remove the danger of mutual destruction. Tiferet is, rather, a long and more unifying picture which gives each set of horns their rightful place, so that they are no longer locked in combat.

This is why it is called tiferet, "beauty," for beauty is always attained by integrating elements and playing them off against each other. Black and white are opposites; their proper integration creates beauty. Beauty does not adjudicate contrasts and turn everything gray; rather, beauty integrates both black and white into a picture of depth.

Personal Avodah

On the Avodas Hashem level, one should be as passionate as possible in serving Hashem. The Mesilas Yesharim criticizes those who would be happy with an average seat in Olam Haba. Aim high, and one will end up at least in the middle.Passion notwithstanding, nuance and balance is crucial in balancing tendencies, as well as in decision making.

Concerning tendencies and character traits, the Rambam in Hilchos Deios(1st chapter) writes that the middle points are the proper place to be--haDerech haYesharah he middah beinones sh'bchol deah v'deah. The Rambam derives this obligation from the pasak of v'halachta b'derachav, which Chazal tell us is imitatio dei . The Rambam cites Avroham as well as having followed this. The Rambam, however, makes exceptions for humility and anger(2nd perek, ibid).

Concerning decision making, the Mesilas Yesharim devotes a chapter to the topic called Mishkal Hachassidus. From Peninim al Hatorah by Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum, linked here :

A chasid is defined as one who goes beyond the letter of the law, who truly loves Hashem and is not satisfied with merely getting by. He always endeavors to do more. Mishkal hachassidus focuses on weighing one’s actions, especially those that are laudatory, to be sure that what appears to be a positive gesture is truly what it seems. The yetzer hora, evil-inclination, is crafty and has the ability to paint a sin as a mitzvah. What begins as a righteous deed can sometimes end as a tragedy. The classic case is the reaction of Bnei Kehas to transporting the Mishkan. What should have been noble, lofty and honorable was transformed into a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem’s Name. Had they weighed their good intentions, it would be apparent that Hashem’s will could not be fulfilled by bickering and in-fighting.

In his inimitable manner, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, dedicates a shmuess, ethical discourse, in The Pleasant Way, to this malady. He first cites a number of narratives in which the father of the Mussar movement, Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, demonstrates the importance of thinking before one acts piously. In these instances, to act piously would have meant taking advantage of someone else. The Rosh HaYeshivah then concentrates on some practical issues to which,regrettably, many could relate.

Hachnosas orchim, welcoming guests to one’s home, is one of the benchmarks of the Jewish People which we inherited from our Patriarch Avraham Avinu. Yet, the husband and father should take into consideration that he also has a wife and children at home. His wife also puts in a hard day, and his children would like his attention at the meal. The number of guests and their frequency should be considered. Another example is that when the Chafetz Chaim had guests at his home on Friday night, he would first recite Kiddush, make Hamotzi, eat, and only then, after his guests had eaten, did he sing Shalom Aleichem. He felt that his guests, who ere usually poor Jews who had not yet eaten, should eat. The Heavenly Angels could wait for their Sholom Aleichem.

Reciting Kaddish for a parent is a halachah. It is a merit for both the parent and the son. To contend in shul about who and when one says Kaddish is not only demeaning for the son, it also detracts from the parent’s merit. It is probably a greater zchus, merit, for the parent if his son is mevater, concedes, and does not compete for the Kaddish.

While rejoicing with a chassan and kallah at their wedding is a great mitzvah, those who have young children at home should not do so at the expense of the grandparents, who are usually the babysitters. Even when the babysitter is a teenager who can use the money, she still has to go to school the next day. In addition, bachurim who insist on dancing into the wee hours of the morning should consider the fact that the parents of the chassan and kallah areundoubtedly exhausted and would like to conclude the festivities.

Last, is sholom bayis, matrimonial harmony. Rav Pam describes a scenario in which a young wife prepares a special dinner for her husband. I might add that she, herself, has put in a full day at two different jobs, so that she can support him in kollel. Supper is called for 7:00PM. At 8:00PM, her husband comes home. He probably has forgotten about using his cell phone for something as insignificant as notifying his wife that he was occupied with a mitzvah, so that he would be late coming home. Is this a mitzvah, or is it a lack of sensitivity?

Communal Decisions

In Burning Down Our Own Neighborhood, Rabbi Rosenblum writes:

Using one's sechel requires matching means to goals, and recognizing that improper means can damage, sometimes irreparably, the best of causes. Even when the goal is achieved the damage caused by poorly chosen means can sometimes outweigh any possible gain...

Another aspect of sechel is the recognition that almost any course in life involves balancing competing values. In the case of the parade, for instance, the necessity of protesting the parade had to be weighed against the impact on the image of Torah in the world from the means chosen to make that protest. In addition, there is almost always a balance between short-term goals and long-range consequences. The capacity to keep both in mind is the hallmark of a person guided by his sechel.

Tolerance for Others

This applies both on the community and individual level, and is a challenge in today's splintered world.On both communal and individual levels, there is always tension between maintaining ahavas Yisrael and fidelity to Truth, or hashkafic purity. There is a good shiur from Rabbi Mayer Schiller on this topic which can be downloaded here.

On the organizational level, leaders and organizations have to make decisions between effective rebuke and setting limits, versus the possibility of pushing people away from Orthodoxy, or a particular segment thereof, and I have written about that here. This applies to individuals as well, but an organization also has the very practical question of how diverse a group can be included in one umbrella organization.

The following gemara is sometimes used in connection with defining the parameters of inclusiveness:

The Gemera states(Sotah 47A):

l'olam tehei smol doche v'ymin mekareves, a person should always push away the sinner with the left (generally, the weaker) hand, but hold him close with the right (generally, the stronger) hand. Not like Elisha who pushed away Gechazi with two hands, and not like Yehoshua ben Perachiah who pushed away his student with both hands.

At the most recent Agudah convention, one of the speakers defined the purview of the organization. While stating that "we can not always be engaged in y'min mkareves because the truth we hold sacred most forever be upheld" , it was also noted that "neither do we want to be busy too much with s'mol docheik, because ultimately, it is not very productive", and that " we will never be yotzei for those who think us to be too little imbued with kannos".

Bloggers and Extremism

  • Is there a concept of a collective Jblogosphere which marches towards a positive goal, or is it a collection of disparate individuals?
  • What is the obligation of tochacha , if any for bloggers?
  • Is extremism in the Blogosphere in either direction good or bad for the blogosphere on a whole, for Judaism, and for people's individual interests?
  • Should there be things that bloggers agree to disagree on, or does that take away all the fun of blogging? Does it depend on the site?

I leave you with these qustions.


science, religion, and the dispassionate search for truth

Sam Harris: "The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so. The distinction could not be more obvious, or more consequential, and yet it is everywhere elided, even in the ivory tower."

Given the choice of religious closed-mindedness vs. the dispassionate search for truth, who would not favor the latter over the former! The problem is this portrait of science exists only as a figment of Harris' and his followers' imaginations, a fairy-tale created to justify their attacks on the straw-man of religious belief Harris' creates. What is striking when reading Harris even more than how little he knows about religion (one would have thought that a "dispassionate consideration of evidence" might demand that one study theology before writing a vicious attack on its tenents) is how little his philosophy of science corresponds with reality.

From a summary of Thomas Kuhn's “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”:

Kuhn also maintained that, contrary to popular conception, typical scientists are not objective and independent thinkers. Rather, they are conservative individuals who accept what they have been taught and apply their knowledge to solving the problems that their theories dictate…

…As a consequence, scientists tend to ignore research findings that might threaten the existing paradigm and trigger the development of a new and competing paradigm. For example, Ptolemy popularized the notion that the sun revolves around the earth, and this view was defended for centuries even in the face of conflicting evidence. In the pursuit of science, Kuhn observed, "novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation."

Rigid thought, conservative adherence to a paradigm even in the face of contrary evidence, resistance to change – is this the "dispassionate consideration of new evidence" that Harris so admires? The history of science reveals a stubbon adherence to doctrine that rivals...well, that Harris would say rivals religion. In Kuhn's own words:

Copernicanism made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus' death. Newton's work was not generally accepted, particularly on the Continent, for more than half a century after the Principia appeared. The difficulties of conversion have often been noted by the scientists themselves…And Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography, sadly remarked that "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

on language and lomdus: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, lashon kodesh, and the Brisker derech

I don’t want to take anything away from Baruch’s encouragement to avoid jargon and speak in plain English, but I think there is also something to be said for the value of jargon. One of the prominent theories debated in the field of linguistics is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity. The theory states that language is not just a medium through which we express our thinking, but language itself shapes our thoughts, experiences, and perception of reality. Sapir wrote, “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation…The words in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached.”

Based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it becomes easier to understand the importance of the Hebrew language and its designation as “lashon kodesh” (see Rambam, Shmos ch 30). Language has an influence on thought; only a holy language could be the vehicle that gives rise to holy thought. It is tempting to read Rashi in this week’s parsha in this light as well – when revealing himself to his brothers, Yosef stresses that it is “his mouth” which is addressing them, which Rashi takes to mean that Yosef spoke to them in lashon kodesh. Perhaps it was not the words themselves which were important in that dialogue, but Yosef's revelation that his worldview was one shaped by lashon kodesh and not a secular language.

Coming closer to our own time, every field has its jargon which shapes its contours, and I doubt that Torah learning is any different. The conceptual methodology of the Brisker derech would probably be difficult to convey without the specialized terminology of gavra and cheftza, sibah and siman, ma’aseh and chalos, tzvei dinim, etc. R’ Chaim brought about not just a revolution in analysis, but a revolution in language. A sefer like the Birchas Shmuel could only have been written after the proper terminology to express the conceptual distinctions of R’ Baruch Ber already existed, but would not have been possible in an earlier historical era.

While R’ Chaim Brisker’s derech has become a staple of the yeshivishe learning, the derech of the Rogatchover is almost neglected. R’ Menachem Kasher’s works elucidating the Rogatchover’s writings do not offer lengthy conceptual expositions; rather, they read like a lexicon of terms, with gemaras drawn from all over shas to illustrate the terminology. Our appreciation of the Rogatchover is lacking not because his conceptual insight was so far beyond R’ Baruch Ber's or other great achronim, but because we lack mastery of the language needed to properly think in his derech.

I have no problem with translations and elucidations as a means to grasp the basic texts of Torah. However, I think one’s development as a talmid chacham depends on a mastery of certain terms and jargon not just as a means to express ideas in shorthand form, but because the terminology one uses ultimately has an impact on one's thought processes. At the same time we should be wary of jargon stifling creativiy and pushing thinking into well established boxes - must every sugya find sits focus in a chakira with a two dinim resolution? In the hammer's world everything else is a nail; if our set of language tools consists only of verbal hammers, you can be sure all we will find is nails to strike and no other problems.


Monday, December 25, 2006

On a Lighter Note: Facing the Ontological Realities of Lomdus

See Chaim B's post, and discussion there, to be enlightened concerning the different categories of, and the ontological aspects of chazakos(halachic presumptions).

For those who have avoided, or slept through Philosophy 101, see here for the definition of ontology.

This reminds me of a story:

A talmid of RYBS Z’tl was speaking about two years ago and used the word “teleological”. I think he realized that much of the audience(including myself), had heard the word, but had no idea what he was talking about. So he joked, “I don’t either know what it means, but the Rav used to use it, so I am as well!”

Anyhow, I think all would agree that it's far more important to know the definitions, purviews, and applications of the various types of chazakos, but I guess it also helps knowing philosophical jargon, if only to be able to understand what some people are talking about.

It also should be noted that hasbarah(explaining) is a function of havanah(understanding). My chavrusah never let me get away with, "I understand it, but I can't explain it". So if philosophical terminology aids, abets, assists or facilitates greater clarity and precision in comprehension, explanation, or, to use Artscrollese, elucidates the Talmud, then I say: go for the philosophical and legal jargon and skip the yeshivishe reid !

Indeed, some of the richer yeshivishe terminology may also quite possible obscure, muddle and seriously obfuscate, rather than clarify, simplify, and illuminate one's thinking and explanations to others. In such cases, there may not be such an advantage in yeshivishe over philosophical and legal language.

I never really liked, for example, the following dialogue:

Question: "Why can't we apply this reasoning in Case A as well? "

Answer: "Case A is a metziyus !" (or shall we say, "Case A is an ontological reality").

So it may be best to translate yeshivish or lomdishe terms to everyday English, whether or not one avoids, shuns, eschews, and otherwise keeps a distance from philosophical and legal nomenclature, technical terms, or specialized language not used in ordinary conversation.

One of my chavrusah's astutely observed and pointed out, however, that if one trains one's self to think using such language, then using either yeshivish terminology or (l'havdil), philosophical and legal language, may indeed represent clarity of thought and comprehension. The only challenge for such a person , then, is to communicate such thinking to others using ordinary English. However, a good rebbe or baal maasbir, should have no problem flawlessly switching back and forth between, Yeshivish, ordinary English, and legalese and philosophical terminology.

Note(nichtav b'tzido) : None of the above should be construed in any way as denigrating, degrading, defaming, casting aspersions on, or to use the vernacular--being mevatel, maching aveck, not being goreis, Yeshivish, one of my favorite "shprachs".


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Frum Community and Children's Safety

There has been much discussion in recent years on the issue of sexual abuse and the frum community. The Orthodox Jewish community is a subset of the general population, and despite the community's strong points, it is not immune fron the ills of general society.

I wish to let readers know of two positive developments:

A) The Dov Hikind show, hosted by Talkline Communications, is a New York City radio show which airs on 570AM, from 11.00 PM-12 AM on Motzoie Shabbos(Saturday nights). It is hosted by New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and deals with issues that are of interest to the frum and the general communities, such as situation in Eretz Yisrael, local and national politics, as well as various communal issues, including drug abuse, teens "off the derech" and other important social issues.

The show has interesting range of guests, including syndicated columnists and various professionals, and it has a large range of listeners from all parts of the Orthodox Jewish community, as well as some from the non-frum and non-Jewish communities. There is a also a segment at the end of the hour for listeners to call in.

On Motzoie Shabbos, December 16th, Assemblyman Hikind interviewed a therapist from Ohel's Children's Home and Family Services who specializes in child molestation. This guest discussed the steps parents need to take to keep their children safe.

Assemblyman Hikind will be doing another show the coming week(December 30th), and will have a panel of professionals on this important topic.

B) Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz is creating a "Bright Beginnings Program". See the e-mail below, which I have italicized. Rabbi Horowitz has posted on his blog about the general subject, and plans to post later in the month about the specifics of his program, as indicated in the e-mail below.

If anyone has any ideas, for the future, on how to insure the safety of children, please feel free to share them here. However, I ask you not to focus on any specific cases or allegations which have occurred. There are other mediums, both blogs and offline, where such discussions already take place, and I would like to keep the current Mishmar post focused on constructive suggestions for the future.

Thank you for your understanding.


The following is the e-mail I received about Rabbi Horowitz's new program:

Dear Readers:

Since my "Keeping Our Children Safe From Sexual Abuse" column (click
here for link) was posted, I received many emails from compassionate people looking to become part of the solution and help fund the abuse-prevention booklet that I wrote about at the end of my column. In fact, an editor who works in graphic design even offered his services to this project pro bono.

Quite a number of people requested that I create a venue for those who wish to make donations to this particular project (the abuse-prevention booklet) and/or for those who wish to fund some of the projects that I have been writing about in my columns over the past months and years.

To honor these requests and to help actualize many of my dreams for the enhancement of educational and social opportunities for Jewish children around the world, I am pleased to inform my readers that I am initiating the "Bright Beginnings Program." (Within 30 days, I hope to post a mission statement for Bright Beginnings on my website and list details regarding some of the programs that I would like to move from concept to reality.)

In order to provide prudent financial management and oversight, I asked two highly respected askanim (lay leaders), Mr. Barry Ray (Chicago) and Mr. Mendel Zilberberg, (Brooklyn), to serve as trustees and Co-Chairman of the Bright Beginnings Program. Michael Stein, CPA, a partner at the accounting firm of Brand Sonnenschine LLP, (New York, New York) has graciously volunteered his services pro bono and will be serving as Treasurer of Bright Beginnings.

In order to provide financial reporting and transparency to current and prospective donors, Mr. Stein will be posting interim quarterly financial statements of Bright Beginnings on my website, and will be engaging the services of an outside accounting firm to conduct an annual, year-end audit, which will also be posted on my website.

Bright Beginnings will be a division of The Center for Jewish Family Life, a 501-c3 that I founded several years ago to support Jewish families in the quest to raise self-confident, well-adjusted children. Bright Beginnings will operate as a separate entity and 100% of your donation will go to funding its programs.

We welcome those who wish to contribute to the publication and (free) dissemination of the sexual abuse prevention booklet to send their contributions to:

Bright Beginnings
c/o Mr. Michael Stein
377 Broadway, 9th floor
N.Y., N.Y. 10013

Please make checks payable to Bright Beginnings and indicate on the stub that the funds are dedicated for the abuse prevention booklet, should you wish them to be designated for that purpose.

Thank you for your interest and may Hashem grant us our most fervent wish - that all His children realize their fullest potential.

Yakov Horowitz


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Touch Goeth Both Ways

Beyond BT, links an article discussing the election of Jason Bedrick, a 23 year old Orthodox Jew and Lubavitcher Chassid elected to the New Hampshire State Legislator. This is quite an accomplishment for New Hampshire, which is home to fewer than 10 Orthodox Jewish families and has a population that is about one percent Jewish, according to a source quoted in the article.

Parenthetically, are these figure correct for Orthodoxy in the entire state of New Hamshire? For one thing, summer vacationers don't count ! See here and here.

Representative Bedrick is a proud Jew, and the article discusses the usual issues facing Orthodox politicians, such as Shabbos observance and kosher food. The article also mentions that Bedrick will not shake hands with women. I am not getting involved in what a person should do when faced with such a situation in a business or professional setting--consult your local Orthodox rabbi for guidance on this serious issue!

But what is most amazing is that Bedrick actually received support from several members of the Salem Women's Club, who were instrumental in his victory at the polls! In fact, Bedrick won the recount in his Windham and Salem district, which consists of a population of 4,500, by six votes.

Perhaps the fact that New Hampshire historically had a religious character, has something to do with such respect shown today towards religious values. The Salem Witch Trials, though, were obviously a negative manifestation of religious belief in New England. In Salem, Massachusetts today(not to be confused with Salem, New Hampshire, Jason Bedrick's district) interest in the witch trials feed the tourist industry.

The article discusses the role the women's club played in his election:

Barbara Elliot, co-president of the club, and several of her female friends voted for Bedrick after he wrote them an e-mail explaining why he does not shake hands with women.

"After they read this, my girlfriends understood it was not because he did not like women. It was because of his religion. They changed their mind and they voted for him," Elliot said, adding she would be proud to have Bedrick as a son. "I definitely got him his five votes there."

It appears from the quotations below that Bedrick is explaining the issue of handshaking to women who might perceive the issue as an insult to women, and that is perhaps why he expresses the issue from a feminine perspective:

“My faith out of respect for women does not allow contact between unrelated men and women,” said Rep. Jason Bedrick, 23, R-Windham. He said he explains this on a daily basis to female colleagues who reach out their hands to him.

Usually, that’s the end of the conversation, he says, but sometimes, when he senses the woman isn’t convinced, he adds: “If every man in the world were to keep his hands to himself, would it be a better world for women or a worse world for women?”

In truth however, touch goeth both ways, and the issue should not be phrased solely in terms of respecting women. Regarding physical contact between genders in general, the halacha is completely egalitarian; the prohibition, when applicable, applies equally to both parties. The issue of physical contact between genders, if one puts it in terms of respect, is as much as about respecting men as it is about respecting women! Should a man whose hand is rejected by a woman feel that men are inferior? In terms of respect, maybe the woman is respecting him?

As the first of the articles linked below points out:

Strictly observant Jewish women also do not touch men, so the prohibition clearly does not confer "untouchable" status on one sex or another. Rather it proscribes physical contact between sexes equally.

Perhaps Jason Bedrick does mention this point as well in his encouters.

I can see that there might be a need, regarding the the essence of the concept of mikvah and tahras hamishpocha, to explain that the halacha has nothing to do with seeing women as inferior. And I can also understand that in some cases, the status of the relationship being forbidden or permissable, originates with the women's status(eg, eishes ish and niddah versus incestual relationships). However, in actuality, as far as the mutual issur( prohibition) of physical contact which takes effect between both sexes, there is no need to emphasize either gender, as the issue is the status of the relationship and the mutual contact between two people.

See articles linked below, the first three of which make the point that physical contact in general, and handshaking in particular, have nothing to do with favoring one gender over the other. The first three of the articles below were written in response to the infamous "teshuvah" of the Ethicist, who erred grievously in misunderstanding this point.

See link here, here, here and here.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Good Bye Blogs

Well, this is it.
I sense that the J-blogosphere is headed in, generally, the wrong direction, and there isn't much I can do to stop that. R' Gil Student likes to say - "Just read the good blogs!" That's good advice, but it only works to a point. All of the blogs are intertwined, and the overall Mahalach is not one that I am comfortable with.
It is also quite the time waster.
Additionally, there is BE"H a very good chance that we will be moving to Eretz Yisrael in the summer, and I won't have internet access there anyway. I might as well start preparing for the spiritual Aliyah sooner rather than later.
So I'm giving my password to Jak Black and he's going to change it for me. And that'll be it.
I am very grateful to my fellow Mishmarites in joining this group blog, and hope it grows in leaps and bounds, making a Kiddush in the process, with some alligator cake. I mean, a Kiddush Hashem.
Kol Tuv.


Monday, December 18, 2006

Difference Between Segulos and Avoiding Cheeseburgers

The title of this post is taken from part of the discussion following Chaim B's post on the topic of advertising segulos(omens).

Personally, I believe that we should give the highest respect, and indeed cherish chachmas hanistar(Jewish mysticism). Nevertheless, one might legitimately ask, if specific aspects of our society, like the media and advertising, need to project a more balanced image of what the essentials of Yahadus are.

Do you think the arguable sensationalizing of segulos in the media is a positive thing? Perhaps it's not sensationalism at all, but merely legitimate advertising. There is after all, by definition, a sensationalist aspect in all advertising.

Feel free to direct your comments to Chaim B's post, to consolidate conversation in one location.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Shabbos Chanukah Calorie Count

(From Erev Shabbos to Melaveh Malka)

3 Sufganiyot
4 2x2 in. squares of alligator cake
1 mid-size slice chocolate babka
7 slices homemade Challah
2 2x2x3 in. pieces potato kugel
1 can coke regular
1 chicken soup with Osem soup nuts
3 slices pizza
1 mid-size portion of cholent
5 thin slices corned beef
2 thin slices smoked turkey
3 shots of scotch
1 dill pickle
1 serving cucumber salad
1 serving cole slaw
1 serving Israeli salad
3 slices gefilte fish with chrain
1 roast chicken (drumstick and thigh)



Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Danger and Tragedy of Neturei Karta

Neturei Karta has been in the news again, this time, regarding their participation in the Teheran Holocaust denial conference. Earlier this fall, a CBS film showed Jews in charedi garb embracing the Iranian president when he visited New York. Understandably, this embarrassed Jews everywhere, and desecrated G-d's name.

Interestingly, Neturei Karta provides a means unity, something that both a Reconstructionist Jew and Satmar chasid may both agree upon. Obviously, the reasons for both of their mutual condemnations stems from very different outlooks on life.

Besides the embarrassment, the group is traitorous. In the words of the Agudath Israel statement released today, "the group is not only deeply misguided and misleading of the public but dangerous to the true interests of the Jewish People."

There needs to be condemnation, which thankfully we have seen in the past from the entire charedi spectrum. In addition, effective action needs to be taken to stop them. See this link.

Some have referred to the group as a rodef, quoting at least one gadol to that effect. Currently, however, that may not be the best focus of our conversation.

First of all, it should be noted that a rodef needs to be stopped, not unnecessarily killed(see Rambam, Rotzeach V’shmiras Hanefesh, first perek). Also, especially after Yigal Amir, such language may be irresponsible. Without Torah guidance, declaring someone to be a rodef could lead to the Wild West, as I indicate below.

Neturei Karta need be shown firmness, but ultimately they need professional help. A few months ago, I remember reading in the American Yated, a letter stating, "let them go back to Iran or to Ramallah". I agree with a reader who subsequently criticized that response. Yes, from a rhetorical perspective, we can ask them why they don't live with their dear friends Reb Yassir or Mr. Ahmadinejad, yimach shemom. But to imply that they should go to Iran in order to be harmed is not a proper response.

The problem of Neturei Karta is not their philosophical views on the Medinah. As far as I am concerned, a person is entitled to believe what they want about the State of Israel and/or the Holocaust, whether it is the shittah of Rav Kook or that of the Satmar Rebbe, both zicrhrei tzaddikim livracha--as well as anywhere in between those two poles. Neturei Karta is entitled to go further than the Satmar position, and believe that only immediately dismantling Israel can spare a future Holocaust, G-d forbid.

However, if we grant them the right to their opinion, what does one respond to Neturei Karta? They believe that the State imminently endangers the Jewish nation, and accordingly, they must reach out to Iranians, instead of praying to Hashem to resolve things in his own way. If I believe that XYZ is dangerous, what am I supposed to do, if everyone else is misguided? What if Neturei Karta compares themselves to Zeev Jabotinsky in the 1930's, and believes that they are the only ones to know that the earth is burning under their feet, that either you liquidate the State or the State will liquidate you ? What if everyone else is wrong?

The answer is that there is a concept of a community.

Neturei Karta must take into consideration the views of the rest of klal Yisrael. The Jewish people, like any other nation, can not exist in disunity. The Chinuch(496) states that this is the reason why we follow the majority even when “right is left and the left is right”. Were each person to follow his own halachic opinion, this would disrupt the Yahadus, cause disunity, and destroy the Jewish nation entirely.

Even in exile, there is a concept of Jewish nationalism. Every person is entitled to open their own shtible(small synagogue) in which to pray, whether in Williamsburg or in Scarsdale, but a nation can not exist like the Wild West.

The Altalena Affair, the assassinations of Dr. Jacob Israel de Haan, PM Yitzchak Rabin and Dr. Chaim Arlosoroff (there is disagreement concerning the latter) were all murders, obviously had no Halachic basis, and were caused because one individual or group thought that a drastic action was necessary to save many lives.

Even if the Zionist leadership, for example, at the time "paskened" that Dr. de Haan was a rodef because his negotiating threatened the Jewish State, rodef is not something which can be applied by everyone on his own, lest the situation resemble the Wild West

So too, even if Neturei Karta believes that the State of Israel has the status of a rodef, they may not act on their own. Neturei Karta is entitled to take its case titled Neturei Karta vs. The Jewish People to a unified beis din, perhaps consisting of representatives from Chasidim, Litvish, Sephardim, and yes, Mizrachim, but they then must agree to abide by its ruling.

I would end by quoting from the statement Agudah released today. I was happy that a clear statement was issued, and I trust many will agree with me that this is a proper step to take. The above, of course, are my own thoughts, which bloggers will either agree or disagree with, but I think that the language of the statement can serve as a guide for responsible condemnation and for discussion of the issue.

There should be no need to state the following, but to avoid any misconceptions in the media or among members of the public, Agudath Israel of America proclaims strongly and unequivocally that the visibly Jewish men who regularly appear publicly with virulent anti-Semites and claim to represent Jewish Orthodoxy not only do not represent anyone but themselves but are a disgrace to the Jewish people.

Most recently, they presented themselves at the much and properly vilified Holocaust denial “conference” in Teheran, where widely-disseminated photographs captured the pitiful spectacle of their greeting and shaking hands with Iran’s demonic president. Neither their professed determination to protect the interests of Jews nor their haredi garb can obscure the fact that all they accomplish is to offer succor and support to people who eagerly wish to do grave harm to Jews.

There are many groups within the Orthodox community, and they represent widely differing positions on the concept of political and religious Zionism. All responsible Orthodox groups, however, have condemned the group at issue in no uncertain terms. Agudath Israel joins in that condemnation and declares that the group is not only deeply misguided and misleading of the public but dangerous to the true interests of the Jewish People.


Rav Shimshon Pincus on Insularity

An excerpt from "Nefesh Shimshon - Iggerot U'Maamarim", pg. 50:

"The Rambam writes (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 10:6): ' All these matters are applicable only when the Jews are in exile amongst the Nations, or the hand of the non-Jews is in control over the Jews, but at a time that the hand of the Jews is in power over them, we may not leave idolators amongnst us. And even if he dwells temporarily, or is passing from one place to another for commerce, he shall not pass through our Land, until he accepts the Seven Noahide Laws, as it states 'They shall not dwell in your Land', even temporarily'.

This is as understood at face value, that when the Jews were in control there was a "Passport check" at the border crossing, like today, and without a "visa" one could not enter, and any non-Jew who was not a Ger Toshav would not enter for even a short while. See there, that the Raavad disagrees, whereas according to the Rambam it is one of the Taryag Mitzvos.

And based on the simple understanding of the Mitzvah - not L'Halachah, rather the (deeper) understanding of the matter - this dictates that one should not have a radio in his house, even if only to hear the news, or a newspaper which tells us about the actions of the Nations of the world, even if not the decadent among them, just to hear generally about news happening in the world, like to hear the words of world leaders and the like, or their activities in the development of science and technology - for the command of the Torah is that the Jewish People should dwell a nation alone, concentrating on their own affairs, and they should not have any contact with the (non observant of the Seven Noahide Laws) non-Jew, even as a temporary dweller; and it is a fact that within the walls of one's home, the Jew is in control. And pay close attention to this, for this is not just an area of extra piety, but the simple understanding of one of the 613 commandments."

I'm not sure I'm quite ready (yet?) to go that far, personally, in insulating myself, but I cannot help but wonder:

1) Could the reprehensible behavior of the hooligans on that #2 bus have happened if we were truly insular?

a) There would be less to contend with in terms of the influences of the non-Jewish (and Jewish irreligious) media and advertisement objectifying of women,and so the attitudes would be more in line with that of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz or Rav Shach, who rode a bus which was not Mehadrin. There would be no need for this kind of thing as a way of pushing back against the torrent of decadent external influence.

b) Spitting and acting in a way which we might call "Like a bunch of drunk Goyim" would be unthinkable in an insular Jewish society, where the Rav's authority was (truly) law.

2) What would happen if we presented this (not just physical security) as a reason to expel the non-Jews from the Land of Israel - we want to be more insular, more 'Chareidi'! - to the rank and file Religious Zionist?

Seems to be simple P'shat in the Rambam...


Extremism, Commitment Ceremonies, and Effective Rebuke

Since there is discussion on Mishmar and elsewhere about the zealotry of extremist elements in the charedi community, I wish to reflect on the concept of effective tochacha, or rebuke. The connection is obvious: acting violently, or in an anti-social way is done to protest acts of evil. However, upon reflection, such conduct is seriously flawed even on its own terms.

Before considering any course of action, one needs to identify what one is trying to accomplish. Is the purpose to influence the sinner? If so, the rebuke needs to be done effectively.

On the other hand, the purpose of protests may be either to show that one is not complicit and does not agree with the evil being committed, or alternatively, to actually prevent the act in question. Here as well, there are factors to weigh, which would prevent, say, setting fires to trash bins in the streets of Jerusalem.

However, I wish to focus on the previous goal of protesting, namely, to effectively fulfill the commandment of tochacha.

As Rashi discusses in parshas Devarim, from our earliest history, we observe that tochacha needed to be administered in an effective way. Moshe Rabbeinu learned this from Yaakov Avinu(Metsudah translation) :

This teaches that he admonished them only shortly before his death. From whom did he learn this? From Yaakov--- For Yaakov admonished his sons only shortly before his death. He said, "Reuvein, my son, I will tell you why I did not admonish you during all these years; because I did not want you to desert me and go to join my brother Eisov.

There are four reasons why one whould not admonish a person until shortly before one's death:

1) so that he does not admonish him again and again

2) so that his fellow not be ashamed when he sees him, etc., as it is taught in Sifre.

Similarly, Yehoshua admonished the Bnei Yisroel only shortly before his death, and so Shmuel, as it is said, "Behold testify against me," and so Dovid admonished his son Shlomo, [shortly before his death.]

The other two reasons mentioned in the Sifre (not quoted in Rashi) are:

3) So that the sinner does not bear a grudge against him

4) so that he does not defend his innocence belligerently, leading to altercation.

Moving further in our history, we find Rav Tarfon wondering if anyone in his generation was even capable of giving Tochah effectively(Erchin 16b). Yet, the Rambam, gives guidelines for proper rebuke in the sixth chapter of Hilchos Deos.

Significantly, the Rambam tells us that it must be clear that the sinner realizes that the rebuker has his best interest in mind. This may mean establishing a positive relationship between the two.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky uses the above Rambam to explain why Yaakov refers to the strangers he met at the well as "my brothers"(achai), a term used for people who one already knows and recognizes(see pesukim quoted by R. Yaakov).

Rav Yaakov explains based on the Midrash quoted by Rashi, that Yaakov rebuked the people he met at the well regarding their work ethic. Rav Yaakov says that because Yaakov Avinu wanted his rebuke to be effective, he first needed to establishe a relationship with the strangers, and he did this by referring to them as "my brothers". Once this initial positive connection was established, he could then offer tochacha in an effective manner.

I imagine that Orthodox organizations struggle with their task of offering effective censure. Ill-advised statements issued against heterodox movements may cause more harm than good.

In the RCA statement issued last week ("Response to Rabbinical Assembly's Decisions Regarding Ordination of Gays and Lesbians, and "Commitment Ceremonies"), it noted that:

This decision represents yet another significant step in the further estrangement of the Conservative movement from Jewish law (halachah) and tradition. Homosexual behavior is a clear and unambiguous biblical prohibition. The attempts to formulate halachic license or creative interpretation to permit prohibited behavior should not mislead anyone committed to traditional Judaism, into thinking that there can be any permissibility to homosexual activity, whether by rabbis or laypersons. And thus, to permit those who openly proclaim their non-adherence to Torah law, to assume positions of rabbinic leadership, is an entirely regrettable step.

However, it also used words like "great sadness", " we are also saddened" and "regrettably, these decisions will in the end serve to further deepen the schisms within the Jewish people".

While Agudah's statement, as I've seen on the internet, was a stronger one, it also was carefully balanced.

Thus, it referring to the Conservative movement's decision as an “an abandonment of all pretense of fealty to Judaism”, and stated:

that a movement claiming to uphold the Jewish religious tradition can arrogate to stand halachic Judaism on its head is tragic. It will no doubt cheer those who place contemporary mores above the Jewish mandate, but in the end, it seals the fate of a movement long mired in muddle and malaise.

However, it ended on an encouraging note:

While every Jew is precious in the eyes of Heaven… and while some of us may face more difficult challenges than others as we strive to live by the Torah’s prescriptions, that striving is the very essence of what it means to be a Jew committed to Judaism.

I would end by noting that bloggers may perhaps learn from these organizations a thing or two about the need for carefully crafting one's words in order to more effectively demonstrate points.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Chareidi Violence

A great number of commentators from all points in the spectrum have written about the recent brutal attack on a woman riding an early morning bus to the Kosel. I would like to add my two cents to the brouhaha, as it seems to me that nobody has struck the nail on the head in terms of identifying the root of the problem.

Before I do that, however, a few general remarks about some of the erroneous commentary I’ve seen already. First, despite the surface similarities, this incident really has little in common with Rosa Parks, and the comparisons only serve to cloud the issue with vague emotions. Yes, she was a woman asked to find another seat on a bus. But the one who asked her to move was motivated by legitimate religious concerns, even if things spiraled out of control, and regardless of whether or not the bus was really “mehadrin.” If we’re going to give in to the temptation of the “wink wink, we all know Chareidim are really misogynistic,” we’ll never find clarity here.

Second, some claim that this woman is committing a grievous error akin to mesirah by publicizing the incident, especially to the Leftist press. After all, Chareidim don’t even read the popular Israeli newspapers – what good will her report do other than exacerbate hatred against religious Jews in Israel? However, this line of thinking seems erroneous. I’m not justifying her actions – this is one case where the ends do not justify the means, and there is no question that she has caused damage to Orthodox Jews of all stripes in Israel. But it is a fact that there is a trickledown effect that drains into the Chareidi media. The truth is, it is very likely that the publicity will help stir positive discussion in Chareidi quarters. Since the cat is out of the bag, for good or ill, we might as well use the opportunity for some introspection. Ditto for the question of this woman’s “feminism.” Even a direct provocation shouldn’t justify violence, and enough of these incidents have happened to prove that this isn’t an isolated event.

On Cross-Currents, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum offered the following analysis of the incident:

I keep coming back to the same sociological insight: The more insular we are - the more cut off from any Jews not exactly like ourselves - the less we are to think of Torah in terms of hora’a, teaching, and ask ourselves how our actions comport with the teachings of the Torah and what impression our actions are making on those who will judge the Torah by our behavior.

Unfortunately, I’m forced to respectfully disagree. Yes, it is true that Chareidi society is insular, all the more so in Israel. And yes, a modicum integration would help solve certain issues. But I don’t see mingling with other types of Jews forcing or causing any introspection, or preventing this violence. And some of the most vicious attacks have been directed against other Chareidim – Ponevitch and Satmar spring to mind. I think the problem goes beyond simply focusing on what others think.

What is the problem? Why are these attacks happening? The answer is, in a word, zeal.

Every character trait of the human condition can be utilized for good or ill. This is the point of the sefer Orchos Tzaddikim. And Chareidim are zealous in their service to G-d. Nobody denies it – this burning zeal is one of the reasons that even the greatest detractors of the Chareidi world admit that Chareidi Judaism is the wave of the future.

People keep pointing to this or that act, saying, “See! It only happens with the Chareidim!” Well, of course it only happens in Chareidi circles – they’re the only ones that care enough to act when they perceive a wrong being committed in their midst.

In fact, I know of another story that hasn’t been publicized on the Internet yet.

It involves a very respected Rabbi. He was walking along in the market some time ago, when he noticed that a woman was wearing an ostentatious, scarlet garment. Without even asking of she was Jewish, he immediately ran up to her and literally ripped the garment off. Quite the scandal, no?

Oh, wait. It’s a gemara.

Rav Adda bar Ahavah saw a certain Cuthite woman who was wearing an ostentatious garment in the market. He thought she was Jewish, so he arose and tore it off her. It was later revealed that she was a Cuthite woman. They evaluated [the fine for her embarrassment] at 400 zuz. (Berachos 20a)

But that’s not the interesting part. The truly fascinating part is the context. The gemara earlier asks a question: Why did the earlier generations merit miracles, while the later ones do not? The gemara answer that the earlier ones sacrificed themselves for kiddush Hashem, while the later generations do not. Need an example? There’s the case of Rav Adda bar Ahavah…

Yes, in the conclusion of the gemara, Rav Adda seems to regret his impetuousness. But the gemara still labels this type of act as stemming from a person who was willing to sacrifice himself for kiddush Hashem. The explanation is just as I said above. Only a person who really cares about Torah and mitzvot would have ripped the garment off of the woman. And only a person who is zealous in his defense of the Torah merits miracles.

Note that I am not even justifying Chareidi overzealousness. I am simply explaining why this is happening.

I do not mean to minimize the problem. The lack of discrimination in the application is a troubling, even appalling phenomenon that must be dealt with. But it is just as important to understand that these actions stem from a society that is headed in the correct direction, in a general sense. It seems to me that with more public awareness, and an educational focus on the evils of violence – both at home and in the yeshivos – that things will improve. I need only turn to American Chareidim (and American Chareidim living in Israel) for an example. They too, are zealous in their performance of mitzvos. But that zeal is tempered with a certain discrimination, and a strong distaste for violence.

I also don’t want to oversimplify – this is a sociological problem that we’re talking about, and like most sociological issues, there are many causes at work. What I do not want to see are strong calls for a “complete overhaul” of the Chareidi world, which I feel would be counterproductive at best. Chareidi society is not decadent – it has not lost the end and purpose of existence. It places primacy on Torah and mitzvos, even if those high standards are not always fulfilled. This last point probably deserves elaboration, but I’ll have to save that for another time.

In summation, I feel that (1) regardless of what happened, I think that we should focus on introspection. (2) The problem is one of zealousness, an admirable trait that is being misused in certain circumstances. (3) There should be increased education aimed at decreasing violent tendencies. (4) Chareidi society is not decadent, and therefore slow and gradual change is indicated.


The Sender Dolgin Chazara Method

There is a Chazara system that has been written up about in the Jewish Observer, and has received other publicity, which is the brainchild of R' Sender Dolgin of Lakewood, NJ.

The system is based on an idea that a review of particular material is done before the material is forgotten. So, it works like this, for example:

Day 1: Shabbos Daf 2
Day 2: Shabbos Daf 3, review of Day 1
Day 3: Shabbos Daf 4, review of Day 2
Day 9 Shabbos Daf 10, review of Day 8, review of Day 1 (last seen a week ago)
Day 10 Shabbos Daf 11, review of Day 9, review of Day 2
Day 39 Shabbos Daf 40, review of Day 38, review of Day 31, review of Day 1 (a month ago)
Day 129 Shabbos Daf 130, review of Day 128, Day 121, Day 91, Day 1 (three months ago)
Day 365 New Daf x, review of Day 364, 357, 327, 237, 1 (one year ago)

After this, the review cycle is every year. (Every Day 365 will include all the previous ones). Eventually, one will complete Shas every year by this system, learning 8 Daf a day.

It is supposed to take about 3-4 hours a day to do.

What I want to know is - has anyone, possessing average (or less, like myself) long-term memory, tried this system for a period of 6 months or more, and have they seen good results?

Or is there any other system that has worked for them?


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Watercooler She'eilos

(Yes, that is about the sixth variant of spelling שאלות I've used).
I'm interested in your feedback as far as the most offbeat Halachic question you have ever seen written in responsa, or know of from a reliable source.
The one that comes to my mind immediately is a question in Shu"t Minchas Yitzchak. A fellow had become an observant Jew, and he wanted to begin putting Tefillin, but there was one problem: there was an exceedingly immodest image of a woman tattooed on to his left biceps.
What have you got for us?


Monday, December 11, 2006

Treeless in Seattle

For those who missed the newsbyte, it seems that all Christmas trees have been removed from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport following the protest of a local Chabad figure, Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky.

SEATAC, Washington (AP) -- All nine Christmas trees have been removed from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport instead of adding a giant Jewish menorah to the holiday display as a rabbi had requested.
"We decided to take the trees down because we didn't want to be exclusive," said airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Betancourt. "We're trying to be thoughtful and respectful, and will review policies after the first of the year."
Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, who made his request weeks ago, said he was appalled by the decision. He had hired a lawyer and threatened to sue if the Port of Seattle didn't add the menorah next to the trees, which had been festooned with red ribbons and bows.

There are two issues that seem important here. The first is the question of the demand that Channukah menorahs be placed in the airport. Perhaps Rabbi Bogomilsky really made his demand in the spirit of inclusiveness. But I can’t shake the feeling that some have, consciously or otherwise, forgotten that the Jewish people are a nation in exile. Yes, we all know that the United States is a benevolent country. Yes, we know that the constitution protects the freedoms of every religion. But the munificence of a nation does not excuse willful provocation that will almost certainly arouse feelings of hatred toward Jews.

You see it all the time – the way Jewish organizations attack “offenders” with impunity, as if our position among the gentiles is so secure that we no longer face hatred or antisemitism. Yes, Mel Gibson is an antisemite – anyone with eyes in his head noticed it years ago. But one wonders how prudent it is for Jewish figures to drag Gibson over the coals, repeatedly and publicly, for his sins. Some may see this as a form of defense. But as far as I’m concerned, if Western Society is really as tolerant as everyone thinks, it is capable of policing itself against racism and bigotry. The Jewish voices in the choir add nothing but the potential for backlash.

The Christmas tree is a symbol of the Christian holidays, and like it or not, Western Society is essentially Christian society. And that means that as long as the Jews live among Christians, it is us who must go out of the way to be tolerant, not them. It seems that even the Seattle Rabbi realizes that he went too far. As the Rabbi’s lawyer put it,

"They've darkened the hall instead of turning the lights up," said Bogomilsky's lawyer, Harvey Grad. "There is a concern here that the Jewish community will be portrayed as the Grinch."

Well, maybe he should have thought of that before he threatened the airport with a lawsuit! And concern? Forget it – it’s happened already. (Current headline at CNN – “Rabbi threats bring down Christmas Tree”)

The second question is one of the airport’s reaction. Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, they caved in and decided to remove the Christmas trees rather than capitulate to Rabbi Bogomilsky’s demands. On the surface, their decision was a pragmatic one – if they must hang the holiday decorations of the Jewish people, shouldn’t they honor Kwanzaa too? And if Kwanzaa, established just a few decades ago, what happens should the Devil Worshippers demand a ghastly pentagram? And what of the atheists, who are offended by any hint of religion? The only way to deal with the problem then, is to completely secularize the holiday – let’s call them Holiday Trees – or perhaps as a more extreme (or pusillanimous) option, to rid our halls of any symbols altogether.

In truth, some view the removal of Christian symbols with a satisfied smirk. America is a pluralistic society, and if we aren’t going to cater to the whims of every religion, then we must accommodate none. And some, of course, have a passionate hatred for every hint of religion. Just look at the recent controversy over Keith Ellison. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, wishes to take his oath of office over the Koran rather than the Bible, traditionally used for such ceremonies. Although some, led by Dennis Prager, have criticized this move, many support Ellison’s desire. As Ibraim Hooper, a spokesman for the Center for American-Islamic Relations put it,

This is a tempest in an Internet teapot...In reality, they should see the empowerment of such an individual as strengthening the Constitution.

There’s a line that I’ve heard in the name of several gedolim, including the Chafetz Chaim. The gist of it is, “G-d spare me from secular Jews and religious gentiles.”

I think that regardless of whether this line was actually uttered by a Torah sage, there’s no question that the idea lives on in the mythos of Torah Judaism – there’s nothing more dangerous to the Jewish people than religious gentiles. And there is some truth to this idea. Just look where fundamentalism has gotten the Muslims; doesn’t everyone sort of wish they would all settle down to Reform Islam? So yes, it’s definitely true that in certain times and places, zealous gentiles have posed a legitimate threat to the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, I think that one who has even the most cursory understanding of America today will realize that rampant secularism is a much greater threat to the Jewish people than a modicum of religion. And this goes beyond the direct influence such secularism and materialism has on the Jews. The core strength of Western Society, as is true for any society, is the religion that animates it, in this case Christianity. But in recent history, Western Society has become decadent. It has “lost the object” – lost a sense of ultimate purpose and consequently lost its will to survive. And it is no coincidence that this loss has come paralell to the rise of rationality and the decline of religion.

Contrary to popular notion, the rise and fall of societies is rarely dependant on military strength alone. Time and time again, societies brimming with mettle and purpose – of whatever sort – have supplanted mighty yet decadent nations. We saw the same thing during the Cold War (until Reagan turned the tide) and we see the same thing happening today: the retreat of the objectively stronger West before Muslim zeal. If Western society is to survive, it must return to its roots, the religious source of its strength.

I assume I do not have to elaborate on the notion that (barring Divine intervention) if Western Society fails – and most especially the United States – things will not go well for the Jews.

I want to make quite explicit that this post is not in any manner an endorsement of Christianity, despite the fact that at least some aspects of Christianity are derived from Judaism. My point is that if the West is going to stand, it had better find something to stand for. It is doubtful that any American will be stirred to sacrifice his very life for the rally cry of “PS3! Self-parking Lexus! Plasma TV!”

So yes, I deplore the wilful provocation against a beneficient gentile nation. Nevertheless, the supine willingness of America to jettison its honored traditions is more worrying still. At this point, I just don’t know if America can arrest its decline. But I certain hope this great nation will find the moral strength to give it a try.


Rav Goldvicht zt"l on Popular Symposiums for Halachic Issues

Today, Harry put up a post about the issue of fertility problems and keeping Shiv'ah Nekiyim. Sometimes, as it happens, there is a problem of the woman's ovulation being too early for her to conceive if the full time Halachically required to wait before she goes to Mikvah is kept, and the question is if, and when, one can dispense with the Seven Clean Days which are not usually Biblically mandated.

This question is one that is of major import, and should be presented to major Gedolei Poskim. It is discussed by Shu"t Galya Massechta, by Rav Gustman in the Kuntressei Shiurim to Kiddushin, and at great length by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in Minchas Shlomo, et al.

What bothers me to no end is the jaw-dropping presumptuousness in raising this issue, as Harry did, as one in which the commenters are asked to discuss at what point a Chumra or a Din DeRabbanan become burdensome and problematic enough to be overturned under an Eis La'asos LaHashem dispensation or the like.

Newsflash: THIS IS NOT AN ISSUE FOR A BUNCH OF BLOGGERS TO TACKLE! The undermining of Torah authority is so taken for granted on the blogs, that even Shaalos such as these, Chamurah SheBachamuros, are now being discussed out in the open by people who do not even begin to qualify to answer this question.

While I may discuss Halachic import on the blog, it is invariably in the spirit of Talmud Torah only, with Gemaras and Rishonim etc., a gateway into the issue - never as a question which is an override of the Halachic process, certainly not questioning whether a particular Halachah has validity any longer.

Here is a quote from Rav Goldvicht, Rosh Yeshiva at Kerem B'Yavneh, excerpted from a lecture he gave at a symposium regarding "Can Halachah come to terms with reality?" [Hmm, maybe they were discussing Shiva Nekiyim! (Leaving alone for now what he had to say about the substance of the question)]:

"In my opening words, I would like to contest the very dealing with this matter, in a mass forum, before the ears and eyes of people whose interaction with Halachah is not exclusive, constant, and permanent.

A fundamental, and interesting distinction, we find in the words of Rebbi (Moed Katan 16;Succah 49):

"Once it happened that Rebbi decreed that they should not teach students in the marketplace. What was his source? 'The curves of your thighs are like the links of a chain' - Just as the thigh is concealed so too the words of Torah are in private'.

R' Chiyya went out and taught his two nephews in the market... Rebbi heard and was irked... (Rebbi told R' Chiya) why did you do this? He replied, as it states: 'Wisdom will cry out in the streets'. He responded... 'Wisdom will cry out in the streets' - as Rava says... Anyone who delves into Torah in private, his Torah proclaims about him on the outside'. But it says: 'I did not speak at first in private'? That is speaking of the days of the Kallah (Where everyone gathered to hear lectures from the Sages)."

"Market" - the center of the daily routine of life, work, commerce; the world of action. "The days of the Kallah" - the days when the masses gathered to the Beis Medrash, abandoned their businesses and dedicated themselves to hearing words of Torah from the mouths of the Sages of the Kallah.

If we say that Rebbi made a decree, the implication is that there was a great restriction in the Mitzvah of learning and teaching Torah. Rebbi decrees a more closed framework for Torah study. One may not bring the Torah down into the marketplace, to make it a mass, gray, product, a product of the marketplace. Of course, there is no wish to limit the framework of those who learn the Torah. The Torah should, and must, be the heritage of the masses. But to learn Torah, the masses must prepare themselves, to shake off the life of the market and to dedicate themsleves completely to Torah. At least for a few days, they must ascend to the Torah.

It seems that the guidance of Rebbi is important in our days, when Halachah is placed on the 'operating table', and everyone feels himself qualified to dissect it with his own scalpel. Any one who has once smelled the scent of Torah or has read some index books renders his decision: How should we solve this particular Halachic problem, and in his mouth there are words of criticism of the people of Halachah and on the Rabbis, why do they not solve it in the way he thinks is appropriate?

Would it enter into the mind of a novice in medicine to render an opinion in a medical matter after reading some popular articles in some journals? In this area it is clear to everyone, that there is a certain amount of time that one needs to learn for, and there must be practical training.

Why, then, particularly in this holy area, the area of Halachah, where there are so many conditions to acquire it (the 48 ways through which Torah is acquired), through toil in Torah, in learning, and in the lifestyle of the learner - why particularly here anyone who wants to "Take the Name" comes and takes it, without fulfilling the conditions, without reaching the requisite level?"

Just one more, very severe, manifestation of the process of undermining Torah authority on the J-Blogosphere, I guess.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Chofetz Chaim And The Cat

There is a story told about the Chafetz Chaim, I may be mangling some of the details but the point is accurate.

It seems someone was busily writing harsh words (perhaps a newspaper column) against the maskilim and various innovators at the time in Eastern Europe. The Chofetz Chaim rebuked the person for going over the line. He asked, “but Rebbe, you yourself have spoken out harshly about the same things!”

The Chofetz Chaim answered as follows:

Sometimes a house becomes infested with mice. Then the householder has to do something about it. So he buys a cat. Now both the householder and the cat are happy -- but for different reasons. The householder is happy that his house is being rid of mice. The cat, on the other hand, is happy that she gets a chance to chase mice.

You, he rebuked the writer, are like the cat, not the householder. Your interest is not ridding the community of malingerers. Your interest is enjoying tearing down people. That is no mitzvah.

* * *

The Orthodox world is now subject to scandals involving child abuse. Much has been written about it already on the J-Blogosphere, and much more will yet be written.

When reviewing these posts, one should always ask oneself: what is the person’s agenda? Is he or she sincerely interested in helping the Orthodox community deal with a problem? Or, is he or she like the Chofetz Chaim’s cat – seeing an opportune time to tear down and attack the Orthodox community?

Frankly, I have seen a very broad range displayed on the internet. Some sincerely want to “rid the house of the mice.” Others, however, clearly have an anti-rabbi or even anti-Torah agenda. A few even engage in Nazi-like propaganda to smear the entire community with the faults and mistakes of a few.

Don’t believe me? A few months ago, an article appeared in a well-known magazine in New York which more or less revealed the latest scandal. Apart from the juicy details of the scandal itself, the writer made sure to quote anonymous sources (“there are some who believe”) who blamed the “repressive” gender separation and ban on pre-marital sexual relations of the Orthodox community and even the system of taharas ha mishpacha! These cornerstones of Orthodox family-life, the writer dutifully informed us, “create[] a fertile environment for deviance.”

(Here is the link for those who don’t believe me: Look at page 5.)

So for those who, like the householder, sincerely wish to rid our community of a serious problem, I wish you hatzlacha and siyatta di shmaya.

On the other hand, those who see this as an excuse to tear down rabbinic authority or even the laws of the Torah itself, I say: save your breath. Greater people than you have tried and failed. Our Torah has lasted for more than 3000 years and will outlast this latest scandal.


Friday, December 08, 2006

appeal to authority vs. halachic reasoning - a practical question

Let me give the general platitudes of the previous post some practical flesh and bones as it relates to current events, at the risk becoming a lightning rod for criticism. If R’ Chaim Kanievsky shli”ta indeed said (I do not trust second hand reports) that flying on an airliner which had previously engaged in Chilul Shabbos poses a risk of sakanas nefashos, a Pandora’s box of questions has been opened. As advice, such a statement transcends rational explanation. In terms of an issur of placing oneself b’makom sakanah, such a statement certainly demands explanation. Can I ride in a taxi if the driver is a machelel Shabbos, or is this sakanah as well? Why do the dinim of chilul Shabbos have to do with issues of sakanah? Is this a special din that relates to Shabbos, or does it apply to any enterprise run by ba’alei aveira? And most importantly, what are the sources that would support such a statement, whether construed narrowly or broadly? As far as I know, no one has suggested answers to these questions, but even more troubling, no one seems to think these questions need to be asked.
Is it any wonder that such propositions sound bizarre to unaffiliated Jews who are led to dismiss Orthodoxy as a “cult of personality”? Aside from an appeal to the authority of R’ Chaim, is there any reason to accept such advice or a psak halacha sans evidence, sources, or proof? If the Noda b’Yehudah felt unqualified to dispense Torah without sources in shas and poskim, are 21th century talmidei chachamim not to be held to the same standards?
I am not questioning R’ Chaim Kanievsky’s Torah wisdom one iota. Afilu sichas chulin shel talmidei chachamim tzericha talmud is precisely what causes me to wonder why the tools of critical analysis and debate using sources, proof, and reasoning have suddenly been abandoned in favor of blind obedience to authoritarian wisdom. Why is this an exception to the process of talmud Torah?


appeal to authority vs. appeal to reason

A casual flip through any sefer of tshuvos or chiddushim I think reveals something fundamental about Orthodox Judaism, but I have a hunch others may disagree with my premise. My thesis is that no statement about Torah matters is accepted as valid based solely on the piety of the writer or his vast general knowledge, but every conclusion must be based on proof from text, mesorah, and/or logic. The Noda b’Yehudah opens a tshuvah (O.C. 37) with the statement that he cannot offer a precise reply because he has found no sources in Talmud or poskim that address the question. For every situation the Noda b’Yehudah does addresses in his tshuvos, his responses are replete with proofs – literally an "open book" revealing the process and reasons behind every conclusion.
True, da’as Torah implies that our Chachamim have the power to "read between the lines" of halacha to determine public policy and final hachra’ah. But the very fact that there exists seforim of tshuvos and chiddushim indicates that the primary vehicle by which Torah truth is adjudicated is by textual proof and reasoning, not authoritarian say-so.
When statements like, "The Chazon Ish says XXX is yehareig v’al ya’avor", or "Rav Elyashiv says Y", are offered as proof to a position, that to me is a base appeal to authority, not an appeal to reason and certainly not a fulfillment limud haTorah, and not a very satisfying motivation to accept the conclusion offered. Those statements are best used as a starting point for further investigation, or perhaps a means of closure when one must choose a practical path between various competing positions. Imagine how short the Noda b’Yehuda would be if it was a list of Yes/No answers with no reasoning to justify those conclusions! No Torah view should be immune from critical analysis. Is the position of a gadol a chiddush or consistent with well established precedent? Are there opposing views, and what do we make of their proofs? Is the debate an issue of theoretical law or of facts and application? And even if one is hesitant to adopt the tools of critical theory, one can still consider what the historical and sociological context of a conclusion is. Finally, because issues are complex and multi-faceted, when the need to act forces us to choose between one path or another, the practical conclusion should not necessarily be seen as delegitimizing the theoretical validity of opposing views.
Especially when it comes to aggadita and what is loosely called "hashkafa", there is no concept of hachra’ah (Rambam, Peirush haMishna, Sota 3,3) and the explication of a Chacham should be read as a statement of the personal meaning he found in the mesorah, not as prescriptive statement of "right" interpretation to the exclusion of others, whoever may offer those other viewpoints and whatever they may be.
Of course, if you forget "tein tal u’matar" in ma’ariv you want a quick answer whether you need to repeat shmoneh esrei, not a pilpul shiur. But this quick answer falls under the rubric of "afrushei m’issura", which is permitted to be relayed even in a bathroom because it is a bandaid for a problem, not a cognitive act of talmud Torah that can lead to deeper insight into halacha.
No one who learns a sugya of gemara sees his job as complete by simply listing off opinions, or even worse, by adopting one opinion as correct and dismissing the others simply because "They’re not Rashi". Regardless of what derech halimud one espouses, questions like what might Rashi respond to the proofs of Tosfos or how the Rambam may read a gemara differently to escape the question of the Ra’avad simply beg to be asked and explored. Just because the debate involves 21st century issues does not mean our job as bnei Torah starts and ends with listing shitos or being content to accept any position because "Rabbi Ploni said so" without the same rigorous debate and analysis, and without considering what "the other side" holds, even if that side is not the one we adopt in practice.
To sum up: 1) There must be proof for a Torah chiddush to have halachic legitimacy; 2) Understanding the Why of a position is the goal of talmud Torah and is far more important than Who said it; 3) The process of learning demands we consider multiple viewpoints and weigh respective proofs against each other; 4) Just as we say "eilu v’eilu" on Rashi and Tosfos, we need to say "eilu v’eilu" on Rav Kook and the Satmer Rav, or other contemporary disputants, no matter which one we follow in practice.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Development Opportunities in Yeshivah Education

Harry Maryles writes the following at the end of his post:

There are two areas of education that need to be the focus if this issue is to be properly tackled. One is the teaching of morals. The other is dealing with the psychology of human sexuality. Our educators need to start implementing seriously, a curriculum that deals with these issues in tandem.

I agree the issue needs to be dealt with. Two questions:

(1) How is the issue dealt with in Modern Orthodox yeshivos, if at all?

(2) Dealing with human sexuality, especially in charedi High Schools would need to take into account tzniyus(modesty) aspects of discussions.

Perhaps small vaadim(groups) are better than large classroom settings for tzniyus purposes; I think I've seen this suggestion in a NCSY publication. Also, one needs the right person to lead the discussion in an effective way, as there would be the concern of awkwardness.

One would have to clarify exactly what the goal of such courses would be. I also assume that some would have a problem entirely with the idea, and prefer that it should be addressed indirectly and obliquely in mussar shmusen.

What about preparing young people to deal with relationships in marriage, i.e., middos and interpersonal skills? There is discussion about this from time to time in the charedi world.

Another issue is appropriate recreation, hobbies, exercise, and emotional development and enrichment.

Despite gender differences, boys as well need to develop their emotional side. The concept of suppressing feelings inappropriately might be a unique issue on the male side of the equation, particularly for quieter types, because of psychological makeup or societal expectations. Society expects boys to hide "weak" emotions like fear, hurt or shame behind a stoic mask, and only anger is an acceptable emotion(Dr. William Pollack). However, one can still be a " real man" , and still develop one's emotional or nurturing side.

All of this is not a contradiction to concentration on limud hatorah and…basketball.

Toby Katz has a good review of a frum girls' magazine in the current Jewish Action(see link in this article). She discusses the concept of such a magazine for boys at the article's end, and humorously mentions difficulties involved. However, I think there can be such a magazine for boys with essays on appropriate topics; it would also be an opportunity to develop writing skills(I think, by the way, that the Jewish Observer had a feature on a writing program in the Noverminsker Yeshivah).

From the Jewish Action article:

And that would be my answer to Friedan and her ilk:

Our Orthodox youngsters are leading rich, full, useful, meaningful
lives. We have much to be grateful for, and much to be
proud of.

I only wish there were an equivalent magazine for boys.

P.S. When I read this article to my teenaged son and
daughters, they all laughed at the very idea that a boy would
be interested in stories about being friends with the nerdy
new boy in town, or what to wear to his brother’s wedding.
Oh well, scratch that.

Anyhow, this is all just some food for thought. Of course, our educators and leaders need to discuss and give guidance on these important topics.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Upgrader Funds

(This is not at all to be taken as financial advice, just some musings.)
When it comes to investing strategies, there are two basic approaches in buying mutual funds.
(These are funds which take your money and invest them in particular stocks for you, for a fee. Sometimes the investment is across huge swaths of the market, like funds that invest in those stocks that make up the S&P 500 [the "top" 500 companies in the US stock market], or the Wilshire 5000 Total Market. They can also be quite focused, like investing solely in biotechnology, or real estate.)
One approach is a market timing approach - entering the market when certain indicators show that the outlook for growth is favorable, and exiting when the signals are unfavorable. This takes some following of a strategy - either your own, if you're really, really expert, or of a market timing newsletter, such as that of Bob Brinker, among many others.
The other approach is the buy-and-hold strategy. This means that you put your money in a fund, and let it sit there, riding out the ups and downs of the market. Over time, the US stock market has outperformed other, more conservative, instruments of investment, such as government bonds. If someone has a long enough time-horizon to wait out the inevitable roller-coaster, past history indicates that overall one will do better in the stock market than elsewhere.
For the buy-and-hold investor, the Upgrader funds are an interesting option. The strategy is based on an intriguing concept. This fund buys other mutual funds which are just beginning to perform well, in the hopes of riding the wave. As the fund begins to underperform, (trends are determined based on certain algorithms), the Upgrader fund shifts out of those funds.
Since the inception of FUNDX (the trading symbol for the basic "Upgrader fund"), the fund has significantly outperformed the S&P 500, which is a traditional benchmark used in comparison to a fund. You can go here for the data. (You can enter 'FUNDX', then a space, then 'VFINX', which is a fund which mirrors the S&P 500 index, and see the results over the medium and longer term)
[Full disclosure - I have retirement money in that fund]
Saving for retirement is a very important priority, as Social Security, even if it survives until retirement age for thirtysomethings like me, will not cover costs of living, and company pensions are basically a thing of the past. Looking into investment in mutual funds as a way to provide for the golden years is a good idea.
Now, I could go off on a tangent to discuss how one stream of Judaism today mirrors the buy-and-hold, and one is more the market timer, adjusting and tinkering as the climate dictates, but that's not really the point of the post. It was more to see who among Mishmar readers, if at all, is into this stuff... [If politics works...] (and a public service reminder to save for retirement).


Monday, December 04, 2006

Derasha for Parshas VaYishlach

Yaakov prepares himself for his encounter with Esav in three ways - through gifts, davening, and battle.
We normally tend to associate these preparations for his encounter with Esav as a means of either avoiding battle through "natural means" - offering a gift, appealing to Hashem to be saved from defeat in battle at the hands of Esav, and, if necessary, putting up a good fight.
However, this is only half the story.

The Passuk says later on: "Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav.
The Or HaChaim, and others, explain this Passuk, that Yaakov is worried about two possible scenarios that may unfold in his meeting with Esav. He is of course worried about coming to physical harm, but even ahead of that he is worried about "his brother" - the fraternal bond of Esav being renewed, and the possibility of being forced to deal with an amicable brother, who wants to associate with Yaakov and his family.
Yaakov knows that it is an inevitable part of his and his descendants' destiny to be intertwined with Esav's - he wrestles with the Sar Shel Esav through the night. Wrestling - arms intertwined with arms, legs with legs, headlocks, one wrestler atop the other, trying to pin each other to the ground - rendering the opponent immobile. And he knows, just as inevitably, that he will be wounded, injured, limping, from this association.
This is true whether the association is confrontational - where the Jews will suffer losses, or fraternal - the Jews will suffer as well.
One Rosh Yeshiva showed me a Medrash:
"And he was limping on his thigh - R' Yehoshua ben Levi was coming from Rome, and when he reached Acre, R' Chanina came to greet him. He found that he was limping on his thigh. He said: You are like your ancestor, 'And he was limping on his thigh'"
What is the meaning of this Medrash? And, since Rabbi Chanina was R' Yehoshua ben Levi's Rebbe, why was he coming to greet his Talmid?
R' Yehoshua ben Levi has just returned from Rome. What did he do there? He hobnobbed with the great Emperor, the Roman aristocracy, to accomplish some political benefit on behalf of the Jews. R' Chanina tells him - it is clear to me that you were somehow affected by your visit to Rome - it is not possible to remain unaffected! As your Rebbe, it is my job to sensitize you to this, and to help you discover where exactly your spiritual level declined.
Yaakov prepares himself for his meeting with Esav "his brother" with these three things as well - he must daven not to be adversely affected, he must be prepared to fight to maintain his standards, and he must offer gifts to his brother, so that when Esav offers to have some of his men travel along with Yaakov, Yaakov has some leverage to be able to hold his brother at arm's length and keep him from getting too close.
In America, we are far more worried about Esav "our brother" than of Esav "the Esav". We have lost millions to assimilation, and it is unavoidable that all of us get affected in some way or another by Esav. We have to daven that we are not overly influenced by Esav's friendly demeanor, and be prepared to put our foot down when too much influence threatens to creep into our homes - our personal Battei Mikdash.
The "gift" to Esav is a very tricky proposition. We recognize that living and interacting in American society requires some concession to Western culture, we adopt some mannerisms and contend with value systems. We spend some of the dollars allocated to us by Hashem on some elements that Esav has to offer - eating out, miniature golf, maybe even other entertainment venues. A person has to walk a very fine line, and consult with Rabbeim, to determine where the line is drawn. We sometimes feel that our children, and maybe ourselves as well, would be miserable if we would completely deny them, or us, all things America has to offer. But it is critical to be vigilant and recognize that this is just to keep the insidious elements of the Esav culture at arm's length - to help us feel content, not to help us indulge.
And that balance is so delicate, that we realize that only through heartfelt supplication to Hashem do we have any chance of crossing the rickety bridge of life over the rushing torrent of Esav-like influences.


"Recognizing Reality"

The media are reporting that President Bush will accept the resignation of UN Ambassador John Bolton. As Michele Malkin puts it,

Very depressing news this Monday morning. We are losing a staunch, devoted defender of America's interests at the U.N.
Reacting to the news, Eleanor Clift chuckled on Fox News that Bush is just "recognizing reality."
If the White House thinks throwing in the towel and throwing Bolton overboard will appease the Dems or the U.N., it doesn't know what reality is.

The worst part of this sordid affair is that Bolton would likely be confirmed by a vote on the Senate floor. But the vote will never get there because of the likes of "Republican" Lincoln Chafee, outgoing (wonder why?) senator of Rhode Island who has a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee.


The Klausenberger Rebbe zt"l on Rashi

The Klausenberger Rebbe zt"l was once sitting at a charity function and the speaker thanked various women for their contribution to the success of the evening. "Debby", for making some phone calls, "Sheila" for the flowers, etc. etc.

The speaker then proceeded to quote a Rashi from the Parsha and butcher it completely.

The Klausenberger remarked - I thought I had a Teirutz for a Rashi, but I see that I don't:

Rashi in Megillas Rus quotes the Gemara - וכי דרכו של בעז לשאול בנשים. [Is is the way of Boaz to inquire about the women?]. And he answers.

Now Rashi in Vayishlach asks: ודינה היכן היתה? [Where was Dinah?]

So I ask וכי דרכו של רש"י לשאול בנשים? [Is it the way of Rashi to inquire about the women?]

Must be רש"י איז געווען א פרוי! [Rashi was a woman!]

So I had that Teirutz.

But now, I see, (pardon my Yiddish spelling here) אללע פרוין קען ער יא,
רש"י קען ער נישט, [All the women he is familiar with, but with Rashi he is not familiar].

So now I'm left with no Teirutz!