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Monday, September 8, 2014

Promoted to Sargeant

Sgt. Joel Witriol, NYPD's highest-ranked hassid..(YouTube screenshot via JP)
This is very cool. From the Jerusalem Post:

A hassidic New York Police Department officer was promoted to sergeant, making him the department’s highest-ranking Hassid ever.

Joel Witriol of Brooklyn attended Friday’s promotion ceremony in traditional hassidic garb, according to theNew York Post.

His Sabbath observance will be accommodated at his new post in the 13th Precinct in Manhattan.

Witriol joined the force in 2006 at age 24, becoming the first hassidic officer, the Post reported. He started as a volunteer auxiliary officer in 2003.

His brother also is a member of the NYPD, which has many Jewish officers but few Hassidim, according to the NY1 television station.

In addition to regular police duties, he sometimes goes undercover dressed in his full hassidic garb to catch unsuspecting thieves. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Modern Orthodox Rejection of Open Orthodoxy

Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel
The following appeared in Mosaic Magazine. It is an important look at Open Orthodoxy by liberal Modern Orthodox Rabbi Barry Freundel. The fact that he too rejects it speaks volumes. It follows in its entirety.
Many thanks to Jack Wertheimer for his thorough analysis of modern Orthodoxy and for our interesting conversation as he was preparing the essay. I welcome the opportunity to be part of this crucial dialogue. 
During my almost 40 years as a pulpit rabbi, I have developed a reputation for liberal rulings on many issues, and for occasional critiques of haredi Judaism. It was therefore a surprise to many people when I came out as a vocal critic of Open Orthodoxy. I would like to explain my position here by focusing on an issue that Wertheimer touches on but does not treat in depth—in my view, perhaps the most critical issue of all.
To have a fruitful discussion about Modern Orthodoxy, we must first determine what defines it as a movement. Religious movements, and certainly Jewish religious movements, are not held together simply by particular common practices or even ideological stances. Neither a knit yarmulke nor a college degree defines Modern Orthodoxy, just as neither a black hat nor having attended this or that yeshiva defines haredi Judaism. I’m sure I’m not alone in knowing several self-identified haredim who have had robust secular educations and have not lobotomized the parts of their brains that contain what they learned in those precincts. Similarly, I know many solidly Modern Orthodox families who send their children to right-wing day schools to protect them against secularizing influences, or who do not feel themselves theologically connected to the state of Israel.
Such fuzzy and ill-defined accommodations exist across many ideological divides. Unless we are willing to multiply subcategories of Orthodoxy to the point of absurdity, we need to look elsewhere to delineate the boundaries of Modern Orthodoxy. The critical element lies in the guiding principles that form one’s worldview, from which doctrinal and practical judgments follow. When discussing Orthodox Judaism—and, to a lesser extent, other forms of Judaism as well—this usually boils down to fundamental attitudes toward the authority of halakhah(Jewish law). Once these guiding principles are established, any ensuing variations are of degree, not kind.

A look at the evolution of Reform and Conservative Judaism will illustrate my point. (I admit to grave oversimplification in the interest of brevity.) Early Reform leaders sought to make Judaism a matter of activity carried on in one’s private space, while in the public arena differences between Jew and Gentile were to be minimized. They then made decisions through the prism of this outlook. One temple might choose to celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday; another might stick with Saturday. But such differences did not really matter, and neither would any changes either might make to the liturgy. Regardless of their practical conclusions, so long as both congregations shared the same underlying ideology, both were Reform. 
These days, Reform speaks much about the principle of individual autonomy in making choices about Jewish practice and sees halakhah as not legally binding. One Reform Jew might choose to adhere to Orthodox standards of kashrut, another simply to refrain from pork, a third to keep “eco-friendly” kosher, a fourth to buy only from “ethical food purveyors,” a fifth not to observe kashrut at all. These five Jews may argue among themselves about which choice is most in line with “Jewish values,” but no one will doubt that they belong squarely within the Reform fold, since all are following the principle of autonomous choice. This may be a major reason why, at least for the time being, Reform is doing quite well: moral autonomy, rather than acceptance of authority, is a guiding principle of the cultural Zeitgeist.
Conservative Judaism, once the largest denomination, is not nearly so successful. Created largely by the children of East European immigrants to America, it sought to sustain the authority of halakhah while asserting that halakhah was more flexible than the Orthodox maintained. A rabbinical ruling that permitted driving to the synagogue on Shabbat is the most famous example. For Orthodox Jews, such permissiveness was unthinkable; for Reform Jews, ritual prohibitions were not relevant. Conservative authorities begged to differ with both.
And yet, as Daniel Gordis has cogently written, this ruling was so obviously based on convenience rather than sound jurisprudence that it succeeded in undermining the validity of Conservative Judaism itself. Many who were serious about halakhah gravitated to Orthodoxy; many more, seeking to abandon its burdens, didn’t need Conservative Judaism’s blessing. In later years, the movement’s loss of a coherent set of guiding principles would manifest itself in such confusing or contradictory stances as a continued emphasis on observance and day-school education combined with culturally “advanced” positions in such areas as women’s roles in the synagogue and, most recently, same-sex marriage.
By contrast, the haredi world, despite some recent cracks, draws its strength from the uncompromising clarity of its principles. Halakhah takes precedence over other considerations. For those of hasidic orientation, having a rebbe with putative special wisdom to guide one through the complexities of life is powerfully attractive; unsurprisingly, non-hasidic haredimhave also adopted this model of rabbinic leadership. Confidence comes with knowing in precise detail what to do and how to do it in almost every situation. Recently, many have been drawn to the mystical idea that the performance of minor extra-halakhic customs has cosmic significance. This supplies a compelling rationale for blocking any sort of change, except for the reintroduction of otherwise forgotten customs. Fighting the devil of modernity, which certainly has claimed its victims, gives adherents a real sense of purpose.

What then of Modern Orthodoxy? As taught by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as manifest in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and as based on ideas expounded by a number of authorities from Maimonides in the 12th century to Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th, it certainly shares some aspects of its fundamental worldview with that of the haredim. The fact that Orthodox is the noun and modern the modifier is telling. One starts with absolute fealty tohalakhah, and from within its four walls actively engages with modernity.
Sometimes, that engagement will modify behavior. A useful example is the early adoption of English (rather than Yiddish) as the language of sermons. Although this departure from tradition was initially met with strong opposition, it never had to overcome any real halakhic roadblocks. Other, more recent cases—like permitting women to deliver sermons or answer halakhic questions—have raised genuine halakhic issues, yet Modern Orthodox rabbis have been able to draw on precedent and rabbinic jurisprudence to permit such practices (just as theirharedi opponents drew on precedent and rabbinic jurisprudence to forbid them). In still other cases, accommodation is impossible: gay marriage, for instance, cannot be accepted. (This is a separate matter from treating homosexuals with basic respect and dignity, a firm and indisputable tenet of contemporary Modern Orthodoxy.)
Nonetheless, Modern Orthodoxy is not doing very well, because people are not living by its guiding principles. Even those who identify with the movement do not view the world through fealty to halakhah followed by modern modification. There are many indicators of this, and Jack Wertheimer does a good job of chronicling some of them.
Prominent among such indicators is the rise of Open Orthodoxy, which I oppose—despite taking permissive positions on women’s prayer groups and the possibility of women to serve as synagogue presidents, and despite having published the first article in an Orthodox venue to speak of the dignity of homosexuals. In each of these cases, I came to my conclusions after much reflection and careful consideration of authoritative texts. By contrast, being both “open” and Orthodox sounds to me, unfortunately, like an excuse for anything goes, so long as it can be given a veneer of legitimacy through a bit of superficial talmudic casuistry. I have asked leaders of this stream what its limits are, and have never received an answer. It is, therefore, no surprise that some of its leading younger lights have repudiated both the divine authorship of the Torah and belief in the messiah, and taken other theological and halakhic positions that go far beyond the historical limits of Orthodoxy. 
And why not? Open Orthodoxy seems to have no guiding principles to limit its innovations. So what will happen when the inclusion of women and homosexuals is no longer trendy, when the other innovations have run their course, and when the movement on the ground looks increasingly guided by the Reform principle of individual autonomy or the moral/halakhic balancing act of Conservative Judaism? And when the larger society’s ideological pendulum swings from today’s extreme cultural liberalism to a more socially conservative outlook, what then? It is all too likely that, as has happened before, the exciting and trendy will have served as another gateway out of Judaism.
But Open Orthodoxy is not the only problem. Another, significant one is the decline of intellectualism within Modern Orthodox circles. Who in the Orthodox community is engaging in original Jewish thought? While Christians have created a 21st-century academic discipline of religious thought, Jewish academics, including Modern Orthodox Jews in the field of Jewish studies, have conspicuously failed to follow suit. Yes, it’s a truism that, in general, people’s attention spans today seem not to allow for deeper and more nuanced modes of speculation. But Modern Orthodoxy needs intellectual vibrancy in order to flourish. In this connection, incidentally, I confess to being the rabbinic informant, cited anonymously by Wertheimer, who complained that today’s synagogue-goers are far less interested in the nuanced study of talmudic texts than in a superficial review of a few sources on a topic with direct relevance to their lives.
Can these and other problems affecting classical Modern Orthodoxy be fixed? Yes, with a lot of effort and resources. But that is another conversation.
______________ 
Barry Freundel is the rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington, DC, and assistant professor of rabbinic literature and history at Towson University. He is the author of Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s Response to Modernity (2003) and Why We Pray What We Pray (2010).

Thursday, August 21, 2014

An Open Letter to My Bais Yaakov Education

Typical Beis Yaakov Scene
Credit must be given to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) for publishing this artilce. It underscores what I have always said about myself -  that I am a feminist despite the fact that I do not seek equality of the sexes in religious ritual since the purpose of the Jewish people is to serve God in the way He wants , and not necessarily in the way we want. 

While modern day feminists seem to eschew any differences between the sexes except (obviously) for the physical ones, Judaism does see differences between the sexes in how each sex is to serve God.

As I have always said, Judaism does have separate but equally valued roles for men and women. The role of a female in Orthodoxy does not diminish her value at all in the eyes of God, nor should it in the eyes of man. 

And when it comes to matters outside of religious ritual or requirements, then indeed I am a big supporter of equality of the sexes. We ought to treat each other with the same dignity and respect. In matters like equal pay for equal work, or the ability to study and become an expert in any subject... or become a leader in the business community we should be gender blind. 

The following article was written by a Talia Weisberg, a young Modern Orthodox feminist who went from a coed Modern Orthodox elementary school to a all girls Beis Yaakov high school. 

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I made the jump from a coed, Modern Orthodox elementary school to a Bais Yaakov-type high school. In truth, I had no concept. However, I do not regret attending such a right-wing high school for a moment, and am proud to affiliate myself with you.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: there were points where, as a feminist, I really wasn’t sure if I could make it through. There were many lessons, speeches, and offhand comments about women in Judaism where I had to roll my eyes and remind myself not to take things so seriously. The hashkafa (philosophy) rabbi whose biggest blessing was “shemoneh esrei l’chuppah, but the gematria of tov is seventeen—the Sages say eighteen is an auspicious age to wed, but the numerical value of good is seventeen;” the (female) Nashim B’Tanach (Women in the Bible) teacher who taught us that women are the moon and men are the sun, so we are only reflections of the men in our lives; the halakha(Jewish law) rabbi who gave an impromptu lesson on why women shouldn’t enter the clergy…I could go on and on. It made my blood boil.

The undue emphasis on tzniut (modesty) was also difficult for me to swallow. I follow the rules of tzniutas you taught me—covering knees, elbows, collarbone—because that’s how I feel comfortable. But considering the amount of mitzvot (commandments) that you did not care to emphasize, it bothered me that you put so much effort into exhorting us (a largely modestly-dressed bunch to begin with) to cover up.
So no, you were not without your negatives. But with the space of a year sans pleated skirts and collared shirts to reflect, I realize that I gained much more from you than I ever thought I would. I don’t think that I am a feminist despite my Bais Yaakov education, but because of it.

Although some might find it ironic, you provided me with many more learned female role models than my elementary school did. I certainly had my share of women teachers when I was younger, but they were not as respected as the rabbis, particularly those rabbis who taught the boys’ classes. During my four years in Bais Yaakov, the only male Judaic studies teachers I had taught halakha andhashkafa, so text-based classes were always woman-led. Consequently, there was never any doubt in my (or any other student’s) mind that women are capable of learning and mastering religious texts and any accompanying commentary.

Beyond the classroom, you definitely tried to promote the model of an educated, frum (observant) woman who can lead others and hold her own in a religious or secular arena. Principals were always female and Orthodox, as were guidance counselors and administrators. We were frequently addressed by women speakers, whether they were delivering words of Torah or lectures on genetic testing. For the biannual school production, we performed a musical about the life and legacy of Sarah Schenirer, the creator of Bais Yaakov and innovator of Jewish women’s education. Students were encouraged to take on leadership roles, from debate team captain to choir head to hesed(community service) committee coordinator.

So I don’t think that it would be fair to characterize you by “shemoneh esrei l’chuppah” and speeches on modesty. Yes, those were big parts of my high school career, and I don’t wish to ignore them, especially because I know that they dominated many other Bais Yaakov girls’ high school careers. But they do not define my experience in Bais Yaakov. No, I feel that my time in high school is better characterized by the all-girls environment, in which my friends and I were able to laugh with each other unselfconsciously. By the strong friendships I made, and keep to this day. By the high level of Judaic and secular learning I didn’t even realize I received until I got to college. By the strong women I learned from, both inside and outside the classroom.

So thank you, Bais Yaakov. For showing me that a woman can learn just as well as any man can, and that a frum woman can do whatever she sets her mind to. You never called yourself feminist, and I certainly did not think to apply the label to you while I was in high school. But now, in retrospect, I do believe that it would be the proper adjective to describe the education you gave me.

Sincerely,
A feminist Bais Yaakov graduate

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Different Kind of Achdus

Rachel Fraenkel welcomes vistors at her Shiva house (Forward)
This is a good start. If we can get them to do this in person with full media attention, both Arab and Israeli - it should cool things down. And more. Who know... maybe even a lot more. From the Forward

The families of murdered Israeli teen Naftali Fraenkel and murdered Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir are drawing comfort from an unexpected source: each other.

Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat took to Facebook on Sunday to write about an “emotional and special telephone conversation between two families that have lost their sons.” He said that during his visit to the Fraenkel family home, he had a chance to speak to Hussein Abu Khdeir, Mohammed’s father, and express pain at the “barbaric” murder of his son.

Barkat then suggested that Abu Khdeir speak to Yishai Fraenkel, the uncle of Naftali Fraenkel who recently told the press that “the life of an Arab is equally precious to that of a Jew. Blood is blood, and murder is murder, whether that murder is Jewish or Arab.” The two men took Barkat’s advice and comforted one another by telephone.

In a separate visit organized by Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, chair of the religious council of Gush Etzion, Palestinians from the Hebron area showed up at the door of the Fraenkel family, looking to comfort the bereaved.

Asked why they had come, one Palestinian said, “Things will only get better when we learn to cope with each other’s pain and stop getting angry at each other. Our task is to give strength to the family and also to take a step toward my nation’s liberation. We believe that the way to our liberation is through the hearts of Jews.”

He later said that the visit went very well from his perspective. “They received us very, very nicely. The mother [Rachel Fraenkel] was incredible.”
“I see before me a Jewish family who has lost a son opening the door to me,” he added. “That’s not obvious. It touched my heart and my nation.”

The Palestinian visitors also mentioned an initiative spearheaded by Jews and Muslims to transform July 15, the Jewish fast day known as 17 Tammuz, into a joint fast day for people of both religions who wish to express their desire to end violence in the region.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Sometimes You Get what You Need

The Stones in Israel
I have always been a Beatles fan. Still am. The Stones? Not so much. Although I do like some of their stuff, I found Mick Jagger's lyrics and performance style a bit too raunchy for my tastes. I also liked the more mainstream melodic sound of Lennon/McCartney. But today, I am a Stones fan. And I think we should all be. From the Jewish Press:

Long time readers of yesterday’s papers know that JewishPress.com was instrumental in bringing the Rolling Stones to Israel, 2000 light years from home.
Our Rolling Stones Purim spoof was hot stuff and it was just like the hand of fate flipped a switch and suddenly the Rolling Stones are in another land.
Now time waits for no one, even the Rolling Stones when it comes to when the Shavuot holiday ends. But now it looks like time is on my side as the Rolling Stones have delayed the start of their performance to 9:15PM in little Tel (&) Aviv to allow religious fans to get to the concert. We love you!
Who says you can’t always get what you want?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Sean Penn - An American Hero

Sean Penn and Jacob Ostreicher in less happy times
An amazing story that should be read world-wide. From The Algemeiner:
Jacob Ostreicher, the Orthodox Jewish American who was held captive in Bolivia for three years, on Sunday revealed details for the first time on how actor Sean Penn helped bring him back to the U.S. last December and personally nursed him to mental and physical health.
“I spent two weeks rolled up in a fetal position in Sean’s house… and through it all, Sean sat with me for hours, sometimes sitting with me all night, rubbing my back, saying quietly, ‘Stay strong Jacob, give yourself some time,’” Ostreicher said in a speech at Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s This World: The Values Network’s Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala, where Penn received the organization’s Champion of Jewish Justice Award.
“Who do you think was the first person I saw when I walked off that plane onto U.S. soil for the first time in three years? It was none other than Sean Penn with a team of immigration officials,” Ostreicher said. “Sean put me up in a five star hotel… and then brought me to his home and gave me a warm bath, stocked his refrigerator with kosher food and told me ‘Jacob, my house is your house.’”
Ostreicher, a Brooklyn native, traveled to Bolivia in December 2010 to oversee rice production and was arrested in June 2011 on suspicion of money laundering and criminal organization. No formal charges were ever been brought against him but he was still imprisoned, and has always maintained his innocence.
Ostreicher and Penn have been tight lipped about the details of the escape, which at the time was described to The Algemeiner by a source as an “operation.” However, during his speech on Sunday, Ostreicher revealed that Venezuela provided assistance. He thanked the Venezuelan government  for “what I can really describe as a heroic demonstration of ‘bikur cholim’ ['visiting the sick']. If it wouldn’t be for the government of Venezuela, I wouldn’t be standing here tonight.”
Penn also made Ostreicher’s health a priority when he visited the Jewish New Yorker in the notorious Bolivian prison in which he was held. When the actor met Ostreicher in Bolivia, the captive weighed less than a 110 pounds.
“Sean’s first question was, ‘When was the last time you saw a doctor?’ I told Sean that my lawyers have been working for the last six months to try to get me some medical attention,” Ostreicher said. “That very same night, at 1 in the morning, Sean came back but this time with a doctor by his side and within 48 hours, he had me transferred to a hospital.”
“I can’t get into all the details of the next year and a half or how difficult the road to freedom was, or how many times Sean saved my life, but suffice it to say he literally dropped everything for a fellow American halfway across the planet even to the point that Sean himself had to flee Bolivia,” Ostreicher explained.
Ostreicher said he was apprehensive about seeing his family when he first returned to the U.S., but Penn dragged him to see his daughter and grandchildren. During that first family meeting, Ostreicher said he stood beside Penn and told his grandchildren about the “very strong man who wasn’t afraid of anything” that helped him escape captivity.
Ostreicher told the audience on Sunday that the children looked to Penn and were “marveling at the superhero before them.”
“Was that the story you were all expecting to hear tonight? About this anti-American, Jew-hating, Israel-loving communist Sean Penn?” he concluded.