Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ignoring the Forrest

Rabbi Berel Wein
Wisdom from Rabbi  Berel Wein in Arutz Sheva:

We are all aware that our best laid plans and visions of our future are upset when life itself intervenes. We are always blindsided by unforeseen events. We are prone to be distracted and diverted by rather petty, small and even inconsequential events. The great issues that face and even bedevil the Jewish people and the Jewish state rarely receive the attention that they obviously deserve. 

A great deal of this is due to the media frenzy and instant social media communication that characterizes our current society and generation. The constant necessity to produce news – fake or otherwise – drives the crushing creation of distractions and diversions. And these sideshows mesmerize us and we forget what our true goals and policies should be.

We are invested in scandals, personal failures and rumors, and the great issues are ignored. There is no doubt that a price will be exacted for this failure.  The history of the past two centuries in Jewish life worldwide shows clearly the perils of ignoring great ideas while concentrating on passing controversies. 

When Reform and Haskalah were attracting generations of children of previously staunchly Orthodox families, the Orthodox leadership generally ignored the underlying causes for the success of these movements and contended themselves with bans and posters. Instead they argued about women’s education, secular studies, modes of dress, personal rabbinic disputes and controversies and other issues, most of which have long been completely forgotten. Seeing only the trees and never viewing the forest is always a dangerous policy.  

There is currently a controversy here in Israel about the kosher status of a certain type of chicken species. Imported from Belgium, this type of chicken was approved as being kosher by a leading charedi kashruth certification organization, one of the more renowned groups here in Israel. However, as can be expected in any type of kashruth question and innovation, there is always another rabbinic opinion. 

And the other well-known rabbinic kashruth authorities declared that this type of chicken was not acceptable. The media had, and continues to have, a field day regarding this controversy. As is usual in such instances, families have been split, dishes have been discarded and destroyed and the poster wars have been renewed and intensified. 

And the other well-known rabbinic kashruth authorities declared that this type of chicken was not acceptable. The media had, and continues to have, a field day regarding this controversy. As is usual in such instances, families have been split, dishes have been discarded and destroyed and the poster wars have been renewed and intensified. 

This is very reminiscent of the rabbinic dispute in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries regarding the newly discovered American turkey.  For almost a century, the controversy regarding this bird continued until the Jewish people, by practice, decided that the American turkey was just a big chicken and therefore a kosher bird, as it is universally accepted today. 

I have no idea what the eventual Jewish decision regarding the fate of the Belgian chicken in our kitchens, but like most disputes of this type, I expect this controversy to continue for some time.  But the fate of the Belgian chicken and the attention that it is receiving is a distraction. The real issue that the rabbinate should be dealing with is education, outreach and adjustment to modern changes, which are the stuff of today’s important issues.

The existential issues facing the Jewish people and the State of Israel are unfortunately numerous and serious. Iran is the Hitler of our time and cannot be ignored. The Jewish people and its religious leadership have to prepare their societies for this looming crisis. Iran is not a matter of Belgian chickens. 

Demonstrations against the Israel Defense Forces are not only foolish and wrong but they are completely irrelevant to the Jewish future. The complete alienation of so much of the Jewish people certainly has to be addressed. But one hears very little from the top about this danger, which is certainly as existential as Iran is. The Talmud allows for questions to which it has no answers. Even without having answers to problems, the problems themselves should be raised, addressed and discussed. 

We are wasting assets and valuable resources on distractions and diversions. Our leadership, as well as all of us, must somehow rise over this and concentrate on the real issues and problems that face us. But we are very attracted to these diversions. We prefer to play with the toys that are strewn throughout our daily lives. It is much easier to avoid the real issues than to face up to them. At the very least we should be able to identify and reject these confusing disturbances.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Black and White Plea

Words of wisdom from Rabbi Avi Shafran published in the Forward and republished at the Aish website:

There is comfort to be taken in some of what emerged from the ugliness of Charlottesville. Despite the horrific events, there is surely solace to be had in the widespread revulsion, for example, that was evoked in so very many Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, by the marching and chanting white supremacists.
Charlottesville is also an opportunity for something I have long hoped for: a coming together of African Americans and Jews.
Since the days in which Jews marched alongside our black brothers and sisters in Selma for civil rights, there has been a tragic fraying of the relationship between these two American populations. But in truth, the relationship between the two groups has always been fraught, and understandably so.
As many in our community are fond of saying, America has been good to the Jews. From the smattering of Sephardi Jews who came to these shores in colonial times to the German Jews who followed in the nineteenth century to the Eastern European survivors of the Holocaust, the Jews who arrived on America’s shores all found America to be, truly, a land of opportunity, and many found success in business, professions, academics and other fields. They were, particularly the refugees among them, reborn in their new land.
Black people, by contrast, could never be reborn here in the same way because of how they came here. It’s hard, one imagines, to conjure the image of a goldeneh medina, the “gilded land” that was America to European Jews, while bound in the hold of a slave ship. And while subsequent generations of Jews were able to build on their forebears’ successes, the descendants of American slaves came to be marked not only by the hue of their skin but by the emotional legacy of their ancestors’ experiences.
And so, even after Jim Crow the man, a white entertainer who performed in blackface, had long been buried, and the laws that came to carry his name undermined by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the psychological legacy of slavery and the persistence of racial discrimination prevented many black people from economic and social advancement. Add the War on Drugs, the prison industrial complex, and the practice of red-lining that banks used to keep African Americans from being able to purchase their homes and climb into the middle class, we have one of America’s worst moral stains, one which persists to this day.
Unfortunately, my community is not free of discrimination. Many Jews, like other white people, tended to look condescendingly on African Americans, and the latter readily reciprocated with resentment. In some cases, that resentment came from the leadership, like Louis Farrakhan and his followers, with their fantasy-fueled hatred. In others, it came from personal and communal tragedies, like the 1991 race riots in Crown Heights.
My personal experience was different, though. I spent my childhood in an observant Jewish home (my father, of blessed memory, was the rabbi of a small Baltimore shul) and a racially mixed neighborhood; one of my best friends was a black boy a bit older than I. Junie and I would play ball and ride our bikes on the rocky hills near where we lived. It was a mixed-race friendship that seems unthinkable in today’s racial climate. In neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Flatbush, you don’t often see African American kids playing with Jewish kids.
Baltimore was very much “the South,” and our domestic help was an African American woman named Lucille Jackson. My mother, of blessed memory, a Polish immigrant, treated her like a part of the family, and Lucille was like a “tante” to me. When she grew too old to do real work, my mother would have her come over all the same to do some dusting, so that Mama could, as always, serve her lunch and pay her wages, as compensation, not charity. That lesson in kavod habriot, “honoring all people,” remains with me to this day.
Then there was Dhanna, the librarian in Providence, Rhode Island, where my wife and I raised our children, who was so kind to them during their frequent visits to the public library, always encouraging them, helping them find what they were looking for and proudly placing the artwork they regularly produced for her on her desk for all to see. And Desi, our own young daughters’ friend, who became quite conversant with the laws of kashrut and Shabbat.
I realize that my personal upbringing and experiences may not have been typical for a haredi Jew. There is distrust, if not disdain, in parts of the haredi world – in fact, in the larger Jewish one, too – for black people. Just as there is animus among some in the African American community for Jews.
I have had unpleasant encounters, too. I won't forget the group of boys who asked my classmates and me if they could join our baseball game. Once their team was at bat, its members decided to turn the Louisville Sluggers on us. No one should ever have to hear the sound of wood hitting skull.
I also won’t forget the “Heil Hitler” that a black teen delighted in shouting at my father and me when we would walk together to shul. Even these days, I come across the occasional anti-Semite of color. One actually greeted me mere months ago on a city bus with a hearty “Heil Hitler!” of his own.
Of course, I have met more than the occasional pale-faced Jew-baiter, too. There are good and bad people in every population, something whose implications we too often overlook. Mindful of the Talmudic imperative to judge “all men favorably” (Avot, 1:6) and my parents’ example, I have never measured any human being by any yardstick other than his own words or deeds, and never prejudged anyone because of his race or the behavior of any of its other members. And my wife and I always sought – and I think successfully – to instill that same attitude in our children.
All the same, in my experience, the arc of the moral universe, to use abolitionist Theodore Parker’s memorable phrase (made famous by Reverend King), has been bending toward justice. While most Orthodox Jews and African Americans tend to live in their own, separate social and cultural milieus, it isn’t unusual anymore to see sincerely friendly interactions between members of the two groups.
It’s not unusual, but it’s also not often enough.
What might hopefully advance that happy development is Charlottesville. The ad promoting the “Unite the Right” rally was designed to evoke a fascist poster, with birds reminiscent of the Nazi eagle soaring through the sky over marchers carrying Confederate flags instead of swastikas.
Ponder that. Nazi eagles and Confederate flags.
“White supremacists” was the self-definition of choice among the marchers. And as they marched that Jewish Sabbath night, the torches they carried intentionally evocative of those of Klansmen, they chanted, loudly, lustily, “Jews shall not replace us!” And “Blood and soil!” — an English rendering of the Nazi “blut und boden.”
“This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal n****s,” one demonstrator informed a Vice News reporter.
The time has come, in this post-Charlottesville era, for all Jews and all African Americans to reject generalizations born of the worst examples in the “other’s” community and recognize that the malevolent drawing of a circle around our two peoples should impel us to understand, despite how dissimilar we may be, how joined, in fact, we are.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Most Qualified Person to Lead Israel

For all you Netanyahu haters out there who actually believe he is the most unpopular, corrupt, and incompetent prime minister in Israel’s history… well it just ain’t so. Among your own circle of friends he might be believed to be all of those things, but statistics say otherwise.  WJD reports: 
(W)hen pollsters asked who was most suited to be prime minister… 51 percent of those polled support(ed) him.
And from Ynet, here is the rest of the story: 
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud party is currently polling four seats ahead of its top rival, the center-left Zionist Union, the latest i24news poll revealed Sunday.

According to the survey, which was conducted by telephone among the representative sample of 500 Jewish and 200 Arab respondents aged 18 and over, if the elections were held today the Likud would get 27 seats and the Zionist Union would get 23. The poll had a four percent margin of error.

The results stand in contradiction those of other recent polls, which has the two parties tied in a dead heat, or even put the Zionist Union ahead of Netanyahu.

Two prominent parties who were running the risk of not passing Israel's newly instated 4 percent election threshold were the left wing Meretz and religious right wing Shas, which for the first time was overtaken by Yahad (Together) party – a Shas offshoot led by former Shas leader Eli Yishai – which was polling at 5.

Meanwhile, like in previous polls, the United Arab List – a political merger of Israel's three Arab parties – came in third, polling at 12 Knesset seats.

Naftali Bennett's Bayit Yehudi party, which aspires to establish itself as the third largest -- and to make its leader a viable future candidate for prime minister -- came in with a mere 11 seats, much lower than initial polls.

Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party was on the rise, riding on its social welfare platform, with 9 Knesset seats. Yet its main rival for centrist voters, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party, was polling at a much higher 11.

Yisrael Beytenu, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, was polling at 7, slightly higher than in recent polls, which saw it scratch the elections threshold -- which, ironically, the party itself put on the books during the previous government.

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party is doubtlessly enjoying the slump of rival Shas, once more under Aryeh Deri's stewardship, though it enjoys a solid and loyal base of ultra-Orthodox voters.

According to Prof. Avi Degani, head of the Geocartography institute which led the poll, the Likud's popularity does not seem compromised by the recent string of scandals in which Netanyahu and his party are embroiled, including the ongoing saga regarding Sarah Netanyahu's allegedly exorbitant expenses.

Prof. Degani attributed Netanyahu's lead to the loyalty of his core supporters, the traditional Likud voters who aren't overly impressed with the wave of criticism directed at the leader.

On the other hand, Netanyahu's chief rival Isaac Herzog is faltering, as the leader of the Zionist Union is facing allegations that he's lacking in charisma and perhaps even unfit to be at the helm of the country at this trying period. Tzipi Livni's lack of popularity represents another problem for the Zionist Union, with some arguing the party would be better off without her, and the results of the poll, where the party garnered 23 seats, bear this out.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Stop ‘Frum-shaming’ the Kushners!

The Kushners (JTA)
Is Ivanka Kushner Jewish? Yes, anyone who says she is not clearly does not understand what the parameters for conversion to Judaism are (as defined today by Orthodoxy). Is She Orthodox? Well, not as traditionally defined. But they are observant.  What does  that mean? The following article in JTA has an excellent description of it. To put it the way Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer did on Facebook, I could not have said it better. It follows:

So apparently Jared and Ivanka play golf on Shabbat. Cue the handwringing.

The New York Post reported Wednesday that the president’s Jewish daughter and son-in-law like to hit the links on the holy day, and stay within the bounds of the Sabbath rules by walking the course (instead of driving a cart) and tipping the caddie the next day (instead of handling money). Of course, the newspaper also noted that even according to the “less strict” Conservative movement, merely playing the game is a violation of Shabbat.

Articles of this type — I’ve written a couple — are premised on the idea that if Javanka are Orthodox Jews, they should be observing Jewish law, called halachah, strictly by the book. Anything less is hypocrisy or blasphemy.

On the surface, that assumption seems to make sense. But it’s wrong.

That’s because Jared and Ivanka have never claimed to strictly observe halachah. And among Jews who identify with Orthodoxy and belong to Orthodox synagogues, they are far from alone.

In general, Orthodox Jews tend to structure their lives around obligations and restrictions called mitzvot, from observing the Sabbath and praying three times a day to making sure their clothes don’t include a mix of wool and linen. But a broad spectrum of observance exists among the country’s half-million Orthodox Jews, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the study every American Jewish journalist is statutorily required to cite at least twice a month.

Unsurprisingly, haredi Orthodox Jews — the fervent “black hats” who populate enclaves like Monsey, New York, and Lakewood, New Jersey — abide by halachah. Indeed, a whole subculture has grown around adopting “chumrahs,” or more stringent ways to observe Jewish law.

But among self-identified modern Orthodox Jews, the picture is more diverse, says Pew. Nearly a quarter say religion isn’t “very important” in their lives, more than a fifth aren’t certain of their belief in God and 18 percent hardly attend services.

When it comes to Judaism’s legal particulars, nearly a quarter of modern Orthodox Jews don’t light candles on Friday night, 17 percent don’t keep kosher in the home and about a fifth handle money on Shabbat. Alas, the survey did not ask about golfing.

Orthodoxy is theoretically centered around halachic obligation, and today’s modern Orthodoxy is represented by strictly halachic institutions like Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union. So what to make of these apparently non-Orthodox Orthodox Jews? Actually it’s not all that strange. There are any number of reasons to affiliate with a movement whose rules you occasionally or even often break. Maybe it’s how you grew up. Maybe you appreciate Orthodoxy’s aesthetic of rigor and tradition. Maybe you like the local Orthodox rabbi or synagogue.

Or maybe, when you do observe Jewish customs, you prefer to do so in what feels like a more traditionalist atmosphere – praying a full service in Hebrew with a text mostly unchanged for centuries. There’s a long-running joke in Israel – which isn’t really a joke – that the synagogue secular Israelis don’t go to is Orthodox.

“A lot of people really enjoy the intensity of commitment in the Orthodox community, but they would provide confidentially that they don’t agree with the doctrines or dogmas,” said Rabbi Moshe Grussgott of Congregation Ramath Orah, an Orthodox synagogue in New York City. “They socially find meaning in that community. Every Orthodox rabbi knows such people exist, but there’s an openness. We don’t check to see who believes what.”

Chabad, the sprawling Hasidic outreach movement, has built a global empire on the idea that Orthodox ritual and affiliation can appeal to non-Orthodox Jews. Chabad emissary couples accept that many of those who attend their synagogues are picking and choosing among the mitzvot, perhaps enjoying a Friday night meal and the Saturday morning service before heading off to the golf course or the garden.

Jared and Ivanka undoubtedly adhere more to traditional Jewish customs than most American Jews (Pew says only one in seven Jews avoids handling money on Shabbat; only 25 percent of Jewish parents say they have a child who was enrolled in a yeshiva or Jewish day school in the past year).

But despite the swirling rumors, they’ve – wait for it – never actually claimed to fully observe halachah. Ivanka has discussed her Shabbat observance at length at least twice in the past couple of years, and neither time did she say the family observes Shabbat in the most traditional sense.

In a 2015 Vogue profile, Ivanka said “We’re pretty observant, more than some, less than others.”

She went on to say: “Yeah, we observe the Sabbath … From Friday to Saturday we don’t do anything but hang out with one another. We don’t make phone calls … We don’t do anything except play with each other, hang out with one another, go on walks together. Pure family.”

Jared added that they both “turn our phones off for 25 hours. Putting aside the religious aspect of it; we live in such a fast-paced world.”

Ivanka repeats this description in her new book, “Women Who Work,” writing that “From sundown Friday to Saturday night, my family and I observe the Shabbat. During this time, we disconnect completely – no emails, no TV, no phone calls, no internet. We enjoy uninterrupted time together and it’s wonderful.”

(A 2016 New Yorker profile of the couple did call them “shomer Shabbos,” a term that denotes full halachic observance, but never quotes them to that effect. Like Jared and Ivanka themselves, the article mentions unplugging and family time.)

So let’s break that down. Jared and Ivanka say they unplug for Shabbat: no phone, no computer, no TV. Nowhere do they mention forgoing sports (or not flying in a plane!). Nowhere do they mention Jewish commandments.

Instead, they talk about the thing many observant Jews value about Shabbat: the chance to disconnect from work stress and their numerous devices, and reconnect with family.

Yes, Jared grew up in Orthodox institutions. Yes, the family now attends an Orthodox synagogue. Yes, they play golf on Shabbat, eat at non-kosher restaurants and don’t dress in “Orthodox” garb. And yes, there are many other observant Jews like them — you can find them living in Jewish communities from New York to California to Jerusalem. Frum-shaming people like this doesn’t really make sense when they’ve never actually claimed to be frum.

“Orthodox rabbis have to have that balance,” Grussgott said. “We uphold what halachah and observance should be in the abstract – we don’t compromise on that – but we have to be accepting of everybody.”

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Telling Women How to Dress

Why are we playing games? Let’s just go straight to burkas and be done with it! From JTA:

A haredi Orthodox school in Brooklyn raised ire online after it issued a strict dress code — for the parents of its students.

The Chabad school Bnos Menachem in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, sent a letter last week to parents inform parents of the code, which bans denim, tight clothes and leggings, and requires nail polish to be in “conservative/soft colors,” wigs to not go past the shoulder blades, skirts to be mid-calf length, and elbows, feet and the neckline to be completely covered.

The letter, posted on CrownHeights.info and on Twitter, does not stipulate any specific dress requirements for men.

“It should not be hard to meet these requirements, as our students need to keep similar rules and it is imperative that the home and the school follow the same standards. By showing our girls how to dress with finesse, they will have good, true hassidische role models,” says the letter, signed by school director Motty Gurary.

“Parents who adhere to these rules will be welcomed in Bnos Menachem School,” the letter later continues. It asks parents to sign a contract agreeing to follow the dress code.


Monday, May 8, 2017

From the 'You've Got to be Kidding' Department

Justin Bieber
There are Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, and Orthodox  Jews. But what is a Bieber Jew? From JTA:
You’d better Beliebe it: A haredi Orthodox woman went into labor after just one song at a Justin Bieber concert in Tel Aviv.
Then again, Reut Ziskind, 23, from the predominantly haredi city of Bnei Brak, told Ynet she was three weeks overdue by the time she attended the concert on Wednesday.
“When I bought the tickets, I was sure I would give birth before or after the performance,” she said. “I never dreamed I’d actually give birth during his performance.”
Ziskind’s water broke as soon as Bieber took the stage. She begged medics to let her stay for the duration of the concert, but to no avail. They rushed her to Meayanei Hayeshua Medical Center.
“I was not having contractions, so I did not think I should have to miss out,” she told Israel’s Channel 2.
Ziskind delivered a healthy baby girl and named her Hadar.
“If I would have had a boy, I would have called him Justin,” she said.
Ziskin also denied it was unusual for a haredi woman to attend a pop concert.
“I’m a modern ultra-Orthodox woman,” she told Ynet. “You would be surprised, there are a lot of ultra-Orthodox women who love Justin Bieber.”
Wednesday’s show, which attracted some 50,000 fans, was Bieber’s second performance in Israel; the first was in 2011.
The Jerusalem Post reported that this time he brought an entourage of 115 — plus a personal Jacuzzi.