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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why It's Different This Time

Forward editor, Jane Eisner has it right: 
Somehow a line has been crossed. The November 18 attack inside a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem feels different, cuts deeper, frightens me more and even angers me more. It is because it was an attack on Jews. In prayer.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not diminishing the pain and injustice caused by other attacks on innocent Israelis, on buses or in pizza parlors, in schools or even at Passover Seders. And I’m not forgetting that many innocent Palestinians have died in unjust ways, too, creating in each people a communal memory of victimhood that can be ironically, tragically parallel.
But to storm a synagogue during early morning prayers, to shoot and stab and hack men to death, elevates this crime to a new level of depravity. Even though the Forward has not published some of the most gruesome images, I must have glanced at some on social media because they remain fixed in my head: prayer books and prayer shawls splattered and stained with blood. Sacred objects, forever defiled. Prayer, interrupted.
I’ve never been to Kehillat Bnei Torah and as a woman, I would not be allowed in the central prayer space, but still I can easily imagine the scene just before the attack. The gentle hum of the opening psalms, coated in a morning sleepiness, rhythmic and awakening. The voices rising to chant out loud, then falling to whispers for the silent prayer, said standing, facing east.
For those who truly know how to pray — and I confess, this ability often eludes me — that is when we are at our most vulnerable. We are shortening the distance between ourselves and God, or the Divine, or whatever being or aspiration we wish to address. I suspect that the men who were murdered recited this prayer service with such frequency that it became a familiar, meditative chant, leaving them open and defenseless.
And then they were attacked from behind.
By targeting an Orthodox synagogue, the attackers knew exactly whom they would kill, and when. Blow up a bus or a restaurant and it’s possible that non-Jews would also lose life or limb, but this brazen slaughter was not that sort of indiscriminate terror. It was not directed at Israel alone; it was directed at Jews. It served no legitimate political purpose. It stabbed at the heart of the Jewish faith.
I’ve just returned from a reporting trip to Poland, and the Jerusalem attack felt eerily reminiscent of the pogroms I heard so much about, and the rank anti-Semitism that unfortunately persists today. But the main instigators of Jewish death in the last century were the Nazis and the communists afterwards, godless people who sought to suppress religious expression.
What’s so frightening about the Har Nof attack is what it might signal: a broader religious war between Jews and Muslims, fueled by the fear, largely unfounded, that Jews are about to “take over” the Temple Mount, the Noble Sanctuary, which the Muslims also deem sacred. Why these two people can’t share that space escapes me — I remember when, on my early visits to Israel, anyone could stroll along the plateau above the Western Wall and soak in its unparalled history.
Yet if separation can bring calm and order, then so be it. I respect that devout Muslims may want their own, pure space. I would hope that they would respect that Jews can enjoy the same privilege elsewhere.
The conceit of American pluralism, honored sometimes in the breach but honored nonetheless, is that people of one faith understand people of another. Clearly the Middle East is convulsed by the opposite reaction, beset by violence between religions and even between those who share the same faith.
No faithful people should have to endure the sight of their prayer objects defiled with blood and their holy places turned into fields of death. It was just as wrong when a deranged Baruch Goldstein massacred praying Muslims in Hebron 20 years ago. We Jews haven’t seen this happen to us for a while. That’s what has made this attack different, and yet so chillingly familiar.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Code of Jewish Law Behind the PM

Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu
I am a fan of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. It is a scene like the one in the video below that keeps me on his side. It isn't so much subject matter that I am talking about. Although I happen to agree completely with what he said. It is what was behind him. It shows that he values it enough to be seen with it. It is the Shulchan Aruch - the Code of Jewish law by which we Orthodox Jews live.
Mr. Netanyahu is not observant. At least not by Orthodox standards. But I believe he is the closest thing to it since the days of Menachem Begin, who went to great lengths not to violate Jewish law publicly in his role as the Prime Minster of Israel.

I will never forget the sight of him walking at the funeral of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat because he did not want to violate Shabbos. He valued Halacha even though he did not personally observe it. I believe that that Prime Minister Netanyahu feels the same way. He understand that an Israeli is not defined only by his personal achievements his military prowess. He understands that Jewish law is part and parcel of our identity even though he may personally fall short in that department.

Of course this is not the only reason I like him. I happen to agree with him on many issues. - even as I may disagree with a policy here and there. And I like him because he projects an aura of intelligence and strength to the world (despite the recent name he was called by an unnamed American official). Even his detractors must give him that. He is also a respected authority on combating terrorism. And his ability to speak English fluently almost as though he were an American doesn't hurt either.

His latest image in front of a Shulchan Aruch, however, was a pleasant addition to my many reasons for liking him.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Good Bye Joey

BDE -  Joey Diangello (Formerly Yoeli Deutch)
I got this in an e-mail today. It was forwarded to me and is from Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman's The Short Vort.

Today is Monday the 26th of Tishrei 5775 and October 20th, 2014

I received the phone call at about 11 AM.

Joey Diangello was no longer among the living and was going to be buried today in the Monsey cemetery.

The details of the burial seemed to be shrouded in mystery and it was unclear what time the burial would take place.

On account of the lack of clarity and to avoid any sort of discomfort for anyone, I did not attend.
I have not seen Joey Diangello since 2010.

I was told that he was born ‘Yoel Deutsch’ into a Hasidic family in Williamsburg.

He apparently attended a Chassidic educational institution in his youth and I can imagine that he must have arrived home on Friday afternoon with a parsha sheet with questions and Torah thoughts eagerly waiting to share them with his parents.

I can imagine he sang songs in Cheder with the Rebbe and the other Jewish children and was no doubt taught that Hashem and His people are kind and beloved.

Perhaps he watched his mother light the Shabbos candles on Friday evening and anticipated a warm and love-filled kiss from her as she turned and wished him a Gutten Shabbos.

And I am sure his father blessed him on Erev Yom Kippur that he should grow to become a Torah scholar and a model Orthodox Jew.

When I met Joey, his arms were covered with tattoos depicting scenes I did not want to stare at.

His fingernails were painted with black nail polish and he was drinking large glasses of non-Kosher wine at a rate which made me wonder how a human being could ingest so much alcohol.

He no longer studied the parsha and no longer received a kiss from his mother on Friday evenings.

Who was Joey Diangello?

Was he a successful businessman?

Was he married and did he settle down and have his own child to raise as he thought proper?

He was not a successful businessman and he never did marry and his friends were not to be counted in the hundreds.

However, he did his best to help others.

Most of all, Joey Diangello was in pain.

When I visited him twice in the hospital over the years, he was in pain.

When I spoke to him in Shul in 2009 he was in pain.

And he was in pain when he left this world.

I had not had any contact with Joey from 2010 until this past summer.

Out of the blue I received the following email from him:

“Good morning. There's a TV show called CSI that I never watch but I do remember on scene maybe 6 years ago. Where a male sees his female colleague is not having a gr8 day.

Whn he asks her about it she goes on. About this and that. at the end of him listening "and not interrupting eveb once". She huggs him says, you always have the perfect thing to say, of which I wanna thank u for saying all the prct things when I nEed it. You just listened and thank u.  

Best, Joey”

He went on to say that he read the Short Vort and was touched by what I wrote.

Needless to say, I was touched by his email and encouraged him to visit.

I was disappointed that when he actually took me up on my offer and on Thursday before Yom Kippur, I missed his visit and he later that day he wrote the following:

I just wanted to pass along my hello from earlier today when I (stopped by outside the Shul)  in Passiac to get my hair done.  Have a gr8 rest of yomtov and easy fast

Best, Joey

I was happy though we had reconnected and he called me soon after to tell me had taken up marathon running and seemed to be finally getting into a ‘good place’.

He even sent me a Rosh Hashanah greeting that when I went back to read today sent shivers up my spine:

I just wanna say "Leshana tovah" to you and your family. May this upcoming year b a suicide death free year is all I ask.  Luv, me.

Best, Joey

Joey Diangello came into this world like me and like you.

He had dreams and he had hopes; he had happiness and joy.

No one ever dreamt that at 34 years old his funeral would be held in a flurry of secrecy and misinformation.

No one imagined that ‘Yoeli Deutsch’ would end up as Joey Diangello being quickly and almost clandestinely buried alone in so many ways so far from the Williamsburg of his youth.

I cannot and will not judge Joey Diangello.

I will not iconize him as much as I would never demonize him.

He was a human being with all of the foibles and strengths which come with the human experience.

There is though one thing I will say about Joey Diangello.

Joey Diangello lived a life a pain.

He suffered through his life and he could never escape the pain which constantly hounded him.

And for that pain and for that agony which defined his life I am sad.

I am sad for the man who will no longer write: 

“May this upcoming year b a suicide death free year is all I ask.  Luv, me.”

And I am sad for Yoeli Deutsch who ceased to exist years ago.

Most of all though; I am sad for us.

For whatever the bloggers will write and whatever the ‘experts’ will say, Joey Diangello did not have to have his life tragically ended at 34.

And for all of us whom he touched and for those of us who attempted to touch him, I cry.

I cry for Yoeli Deutsch who never was and for Joey Diangello who never will be.

And I cry as I wonder what more could have been done and what should be done.

Good bye Joey, I am sorry I missed your visit.

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