Monday, December 29, 2014

Antisemitic Graffiti in West Rogers Park

A lot of people seem to be panicing about this. I'm not sure this incident has risen to that level yet. In any event, this was the report on NBC in Chicago this morning.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Exodus the Movie - A Disgrace

source: the Aish website
I was kind of looking forward to seeing the new biblical movie about the great exodus of our ancestors from Egypt. I of course realize that no movie, no matter how faithful it tried to be, could ever truly depict the biblical narrative accurately. But I am always curious to see how Hollywood will treat them. 

The Ten Commandments staring Charleton Heston was such a movie. I enjoyed it, even though it had a fictional and silly story line injected into it. One that gave Moses a love interest before he met his wife Tziporah. That was a ridiculous and in my view stupid insertion to the movie - insulting to the honor of our greatest prophet. 

Nonetheless, if one factors out that part of the movie, it was a more or less faithful and reverent retelling of the story. Moses depiction was treated with the honor one would expect to give Biblical figures. The rest of the movie, I thought, tried to be as faithful to the bible as possible.

The new movie starring Christian Bale as Moses is not only irrelevant, but according to reviewer, Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a travesty and disgrace that turns the biblical story on its head and apparently makes Moses into terrible person. How sad. With Hollywood's current special effects capabilities using CGI to replicate the ten plagues, this could have been an amazing move. Instead, if what Rabbi Blech says is true, it is a piece of garbage. His review (published at the Aish Website) follows.

According to Hollywood insiders, this year has been unofficially designated as “The Year of the Bible.” As 2014 comes to a close, Ridley Scott’s just released blockbuster Exodus: Gods and Kings is just the latest in a series of major movies based on biblical themes to make their appearance these past twelve months.
In February, 20th Century Fox made the first move with a Christian biopic based on the history Channel’s hit 2013 miniseries The Bible – a hugely successful miniseries which racked up about 100 million cumulative viewers over a six-week period, making it the third most-watched cable series of 2013. Paramount followed soon after in March with Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s reimagining of the biblical story of the flood and its survivors. April brought usHeaven Is For Real, Sony’s movie based on the best-selling book that purports to tell a young boy’s after death experience meetings with God and biblical heroes. Now, just in time to be considered for Oscars, comes Exodus: Gods and Kings, hoping to capture the huge interfaith market for whom the Bible is sacred.
What explains this sudden revival of Hollywood’s interest in the Holy Book? No, Hollywood hasn’t suddenly become transformed into a religious mecca. There’s a simple reason why the Bible today is almost as “cool” as Kim Kardashian. It’s the same reason that Willie Sutton famously gave when he was asked by an FBI agent why he chose to rob banks. “Because,” he explained with succinct honesty, “that’s where the money is.”
The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every single year.
Here’s the result of a remarkable study. How many of the top 15 highest-U.S.-grossing movies of all time,adjusted for inflation, star comic-book characters? None. How many are based on the Bible? Two: The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur.
The New Yorker recently pointed out an amazing statistic: The Bible is not only the best-selling book of all time – it is the best-selling book of the year, every single year. Where else in the world could one find subject matter for a movie that already occupies a place of respect and reverence in the minds of so many millions of people?
And that is why what Hollywood has all too often done with biblical themes – and is most explicitly guilty of in its latest exploitation of the Bible in the filmExodus – is beyond inexcusable. It is nothing less than profaning the sacred and making a mockery of the holy.
According to a 2014 poll of 1,200 adults nationwide, 79 percent of Christians say that accuracy is important to their ticket-buying decisions when it comes to movies dealing with questions of religion. While Jews weren’t part of the poll, I would imagine that these numbers would be at least the same. Simply put, moviegoers want a biblical film that sticks to the text and gets at least most of the facts right. Watching it could strengthen their faith and add a visual component to their reverence for the text. More, parents could feel good about having their children see a faithful depiction of stories that form the basis of their life’s values and moral judgments.
So let’s get to Exodus, the movie. Moses, the man we’ve always thought of as the hero in the biblical story of the redemption of the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt, is played by Christian Bale. (I’ll say nothing about the irony that only Hollywood could have turned a Christian into the greatest Jew of history.) In analyzing his role, the Hollywood Reporter quoted Bale as calling his character “schizophrenic” and “barbaric” during a press interview. Based on the script’s development of Moses’s leadership, Bale concluded that “I think the man was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.”
And that’s just for starters. Wait till you see the first 20 minutes of the film – Moses the warrior in Pharaoh’s army and his aide-de-camp; Moses the big- shot in Pharaoh’s cabinet; Moses in a Cain and Abel relationship with another of Pharaoh’s sons; in short, Moses the cartoon figure of the directors imagination – a director who has no qualms whatsoever in substituting Hollywood fantasy for holy book facts.
How about the miracles, though? Those who remember how Cecil B. DeMille, in an age before the amazing effects produced by digital photography were possible, managed to leave us with the powerful imagery of the splitting of the sea and the drowning of the Egyptians will be gravely disappointed to discover that this wasn’t really a miracle after all. According to Ridley Scott, the parting of the Red Sea wasn’t achieved by the hand of God but just the coincidental result of an earthquake whose timing proved exceedingly fortunate for the fleeing Israelis. And of course the plagues which preceded the Israelites departure were all similarly comprehensible as products of natural phenomena.
God is portrayed as a petulant, temperamental and impatient preteen boy.
But that still is not the worst of it. What is sure to inflame many audiences, even those willing to forgive parading fiction as fact, is the incredible decision to portray God as a preteen boy, played with the voice of eleven-year-old British actor Isaac Andrews as a petulant, temperamental and impatient deity. Representatives for the marketing firm, Faith-Driven Consumer, felt that “The portrayal of God as a willful, angry and petulant child in Exodus will be a deal breaker for most people of faith around the world.”
The film deserves to have it prefaced with a bold warning that “Any resemblance between this and the book suggested by its title is purely accidental – and improper.” But if the producers were honest they wouldn’t get the benefit of the built-in audience thirsting for Divine wisdom.
I couldn’t help thinking of the classic story about a boy coming home from Hebrew school and Grandpa asked him "What did you learn about today?"
"Well," he said, "teacher told us about Moses and the Children of Israel and the Red Sea!"
"What about them?" Grandpa wanted to know.
"You see, gramps – – the Jews were slaves in Egypt for a long time when Moses came along and organized them. They had sit down strikes and demonstrations. To make it short, they made so much trouble for Pharaoh that he finally gave up and let them go. They got as far as the Red Sea and pitched camp to rest. Moses sent up some of his reconnaissance planes – – he didn't trust Pharaoh. Sure 'nough they spotted Pharaoh's army. The pilots judged that there were about 600 tanks with high powered rifles, backed up by a large number of half tracks, artillery and infantry. All of this was reported to Moses immediately. He ordered his engineers to throw a pontoon bridge across the Red Sea. He set up road blocks to slow down the tanks and armed a rear guard with bazookas to hold up Pharaoh's forces as long as possible. When the Jews were all on the other side and the Egyptians were half way across the bridge, Moses ordered his demolition squad to dynamite it. The Egyptians and their tanks were drowned in the waters and the Jews were saved."
"Oh come on, Abie, is that what your teacher told you?" Grandpa protested in amazement.
"No..." Abie replied, "but Grandpa, if I told you what the teacher really told us – – you'd never believe it!"
And that’s how Hollywood thinks it needs to handle the Exodus.
A recent Gallup poll reveals that three quarters of the American population believes that the Bible is the word of God. To sell Exodus the movie as an incarnation of that book is a lie that needs to be severely disowned. The conclusion is clear: Exodus the book is holy; Exodus the movie is Hollywood looking for a way to make a bigger buck by masquerading its inanities as sacred.

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.

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 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.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Berel Wein Does it Again

Rabbi Berel Wein (Times of Israel)
Wow! Two in a row! My admiration for this man keeps on increasing. From the Jewish Press:

I think we can all agree that the two main stories in the Jewish world in the past century were the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel.
These two cataclysmic events changed Jewish society radically if not even permanently.
Yet much of Orthodoxy inexplicably ignores them as though they never happened.
The Holocaust and the rise of Israel occupy no space or time in many Orthodox schools, and days of commemoration of these events are absent on school calendars.
Instead there is a mindset that harkens back to an idyllic Eastern European world of fantasy – a world that is portrayed falsely in fictional stories and hagiographic biographies and by doctored photographs and omission of uncomfortable facts.
An entire talented and vital society is doomed to live in the imagined past and disregard present realities. And if the view of the present is unfortunately shaped by historical and social disconnect and denial, then certainly the longer and equally important view of the future will be distorted and skewed.
Sooner or later reality must sink in and when it does, the pain, anger and frustration over past distortions and failures will become very difficult to bear.
The great struggle of most of Orthodoxy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries against Zionism influenced all Orthodox thought and behavior. As late as 1937, with German Jewry already prostrate before Hitler’s madness and Germany already threatening Poland, the mainstream Orthodox rabbinate in Poland publicly objected to the formation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel on the grounds that the heads of that state would undoubtedly be secular if not even anti-religious.
They were correct in that assessment, but since the Holocaust was then an unimaginable event in their worldview, they continued in their opposition to Jews leaving Poland to settle either in the United States or in Israel. Because of this past mindset, the Holocaust is more unsettling – theologically, at least – to Orthodoxy then perhaps to any other group in the Jewish world.
Much of Orthodoxy chooses to ignore the issue or to contrive lame excuses and causes for this catastrophe. In my opinion, while there is no human answer to the event itself, it cannot be ignored.
One of the consequences of confronting it would be to admit that great and holy men can be wrong in their assessment of current events and future occurrences. But much of Orthodoxy is so hagiographic about its present and past leaders that it cannot bring itself to admit that. As such, the past cannot truly help to assess the present. A false past is almost as dangerous as having no past at all.
Dealing with the modern state of Israel is an even more vexing issue for much of Orthodoxy. The creation of the Jewish state, mainly by secular and nonobservant Jews and by political and military means, was not part of the traditional Jewish view of how the Land of Israel would again fall under Jewish rule.
Since it occurred in the “wrong” way and was being led by the “wrong” people, this too shook the mindset of much of Orthodoxy. One of the great and holy leaders of Orthodox society in Israel stated in 1950 that the state could not last more than fifteen years. Well, it is obvious that in that assessment he was mistaken.
But again, it is too painful to admit he was mistaken and therefore the whole attitude of much of the Orthodox world is one of denial of the fact that the state exists, prospers, and is in fact the world’s largest supporter of Torah and the traditional Jewish religious lifestyle.
It is too painful to admit that our past mindset regarding the state of Israel is no longer relevant. But as long as large sections of Orthodoxy continue to live in an imaginary past and deny the realities of the present, it will remain impossible to properly address such issues as army or national service, core curriculums of essential general knowledge for all religious schools, and entering the workforce and decreasing the debilitating poverty and dysfunction of so many families.
The solutions are difficult and they cannot be dictated or legislated no matter how popular such steps may appear to be. But the change of mindset to the present must certainly and eventually occur. Jews have always been up to this task and I am confident we will be able to do so now as well.