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Vegans and Kapparos

October 4, 2015 at 11:49 am

I have to give a great “Yeyasher Kochacha” (colloquially, congratulations, and many more) to my friend Kalman Groner. He was in Lakewood, NJ before Yom Kippur, and happened to go to do kapparos when a group of protesters (largely vegan) showed up.

Not only is there nothing wrong with doing kapparos, there is more than a scent of something ugly about protesting against it in particular. There are a multitude of places which slaughter vastly more animals and with much less concern for humane practices — so what is it that makes Orthodox Jews a convenient target for their protest?

For the most part, chickens used for kapparos are handled gently — swinging one around distresses the bird and risks injuring it (in which case it wouldn’t be Kosher anymore). Kosher slaughter is the most humane form of killing an animal, vastly superior to what goes on in most slaughterhouses even today. And if there is any increase in chicken consumption as a result, it only benefits poor individuals who wouldn’t be able to afford one otherwise.

And Kalman went right over to them, calmly explained all of this — while holding and petting a chicken. He then said that he absolutely welcomes them coming to share their point of view, respectfully — and then points out that if they want to display respect for the views of others in order to try to influence them, it was unusual that they would quote “halacha” and then fail to follow halacha with regards to dress when going into a very traditional community. Why, he wondered, were they needlessly flouting Jewish tradition in a totally unrelated area, if they were honestly trying to influence traditional Jews?

It was all unrehearsed, and he handled it brilliantly. He made a wonderful Kiddush HaShem, Sanctification of G-d’s Name, by defending traditional practices in such a calm and congenial way.

Was Michelangelo a Philo-Semite?

September 26, 2015 at 10:11 pm

Ami Magazine’s (enormous) Sukkos issue includes an interview with Rabbi Benjamin Blech, co-author (with Roy Doliner) the book The Sistine Secrets, and an article about the book.

aminadabMichelangelo lived at a time when the Catholic Church was increasing its oppression of Jews — he painted the Sistine Chapel in between the Spanish Inquisition and the Portuguese. He was commissioned to paint the chapel with Christian scenes, but petitioned for liberty to do basically as he wished — and the result is almost entirely drawn from the Jewish Bible, emphasizing the connection between the Church and the Jewish nation.

And here, quoted verbatim, is the most surprising find, concerning the painting of Aminadab, who is found in the Book of Exodus only as the father of Nachshon ben Aminadab, prince of the tribe of Yehudah:

Near the end of his torturous years of frescoing, Michelangelo was painting right over the elevated area where the Pope would sit on his gilded throne. There he placed a portrait of Aminadab, a seemingly strange choice since Aminadab was far from a major biblical hero. On Aminadab’s upper left arm we clearly see a bright yellow circle, a ring of cloth that has been sewn onto his garment. This is the exact badge of shame that the Fourth Lateran Council and the Inquisition had forced upon the Jews of Europe. Michelangelo placed this powerful illustration of anti-Semitism on Aminadab, whose name in Hebrew means “from my people, a Prince.” To the Catholic Church, that phrase could mean only one person: the founder of Christianity. Yet here, directly over the head of the Pope, Michelangelo pointed out exactly how the hatred and persecution of the Catholic Church was treating its founder’s relatives! His hidden agenda was to remind the church that its roots were grounded in the Bible given to the Jewish people, and that to ignore this truth was to falsify their religion.

Was Michelangelo the precursor of CUFI, and other pro-Israel Christian groups?

Ask Me Next Year

September 22, 2015 at 10:49 am

running-track-2-1528273-639x426This past January, the Jewish world lost a tremendous resource: Rabbi Dovid Winiarz zt”l, who was known online as the “Facebuker Rebbe.” For him, Jewish outreach was about one thing above all else: finding what he could do for you, and trying to do it. In any field of endeavor, it is typical for us to get into a certain pattern — we have a line of products or area of responsibility, and we do what fits into our “mold.” Dovid didn’t limit himself; he was just there to help.

His brother Reb Shmuel relates that if you would ask him, “how was your Rosh HaShanah?” or “how was your Yom Kippur,” he would respond with a smile and say — “I don’t know. Ask me next year!”

First and foremost, this is the time to be thinking about the fragility of life. We are hoping to be written for another year, and must keep in mind that a person never knows — Reb Dovid passed away extremely suddenly, when the car in which he was traveling slipped on black ice. Now, when the King is “close by,” is our opportunity to ask Him for another year.

And what shall that year bring? These days are also our opportunity to ask G-d for a year of blessing: for our health, for our families, for our income, for our spiritual growth. But in that last area in particular, we are also setting a pattern for the year ahead.

Taking the lesson encapsulated in Rabbi Winiarz’s words, let’s first think back over last year. How did we do? Did we grow? Did we meet our goals? Or did we quickly slip back into old patterns? Then we can think about what we should be asking for, praying for, and working towards — so that when we look back next year, we feel accomplished.

Now, where do we want to be next year? When it’s time to look back one year from now, we will be, in essence, answering “how was your Yom Kippur?” Where would we like to be? What are we asking HaShem to do for us this year?

With those questions answered in our mind, we will be better prepared for Yom Kippur. Let us keep in mind everything we are asking for, everything we hope to accomplish. And let us go through Yom Kippur asking Hashem for help in reaching those goals.

Ten Questions about the Gaza War

September 17, 2015 at 5:43 pm

I realize I’m not saying anything particularly new or profound here, but a Twitter comment about the Gaza War and Israel’s “disproportionate” response prompted me to write a list of questions. Needless to say, the correspondent on Twitter didn’t have a response — and perhaps you will find this list useful in a similar situation.

1. Identify the side that started the war by firing thousands of missiles at civilians (each missile being a separate war crime) and then refused a ceasefire until the death count had risen into the thousands.

2. Name the only military force in the world that drops leaflets to warn civilians to leave an area of likely military action, thus also enabling its adversaries to better prepare.

3. Name the only military force in the world that places telephone calls to warn civilians to leave an area of likely military action, enabling its adversaries to better prepare.

4. Name the only military force in the world that drops dud “knock knock” bombs to warn civilians to leave an area of likely military action, enabling its adversaries to better prepare.

5. Now, name the only military force in the world that publicly calls upon civilians to come serve as human shields.

6. Name the side in this conflict that deliberately embedded and disguised its forces within the civilian population to maximize “collateral damage” – the needless deaths of civilians.

7. Name the side that deliberately stored weapons in hospitals and mosques, fired from schoolyards, and began tunnels within private homes, in order that defense of civilians would require both civilian casualties and damage to mosques, hospitals, schools and homes.

8. Name one of the very few forces known to identify its fighters as “civilian children” after their deaths, stage casualty incidents, and “borrow” photos of casualties from other, unrelated conflicts.

9. Now, name the military force that maintained the lowest civilian to combatant casualty ratio of any recent world conflict. It’s not the US, UK or anyone in Iraq or Afghanistan.

10. Finally, identify the side of this conflict, despite all of the foregoing, to be repeatedly condemned by the UN… and explain how this is unrelated to thousands of years of global anti-Semitism.

Ultra-Orthodox Ministers Are Some of Israel’s Best

September 3, 2015 at 12:54 pm

That’s not my headline, it belongs to Ha’aretz. Yes, really!

Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy is a member of the hard left — his most recent book is entitled The Punishment of Gaza. But in this article, he not only praises Ministers Aryeh Deri and Yaakov Litzman for their opposition to special interests and service to the poor, but takes aim at the stereotypical view of Charedi ministers (and Charedim generally) “in the eyes of the secular majority.” Most of the article is behind a paywall, but here are some of the most relevant parts:

The two get very little credit from the secular community. Everything they do, even if it’s positive and courageous, immediately triggers a suspicious or hostile response. At best, they’re ignored; they’re rarely applauded.

Compliments for a minister called Yankel [Litzman] or one whose middle name is Makhlouf [Dery]? Never. Their way of life and black clothing prevent secular people from appreciating what they do, even when they deserve it…

Dery? Surely he acted as he did for roguish, self-serving reasons, as usual. After all, he was and always will be a criminal, and besides, he’s of Middle Eastern origin and ultra-Orthodox to boot…

Litzman isn’t one of us. He’s ultra-Orthodox, a Haredi, and Haredim only know how to suck the government dry, not serve in the army. Parasites. There are no other Haredim.

Ha’aretz is better known for op-eds and editorials about the Charedi community of a decidedly different slant, ones that reinforce the stereotypes Levy decries — e.g. blaming the entire Orthodox community for the actions of a psychotic murderer or the suicide of a troubled ex-Chasid. Just recently, an article (by an Orthodox woman, no less, one who went through shidduchim and now helps to make them) criticized shallow men who are overly focused on externals — in the Shidduch world. In an article for the secular community, the average Ha’aretz reader, bombarded by Madison Avenue imagery. I kid you not.

Against that backdrop, the fact that Ha’aretz takes an occasional op-ed from our own Rabbi Shafran is startling enough. Levy is a long-time Ha’aretz columnist and a member of the editorial board; his criticism of secular attitudes towards Charedim breaks ground in suspending some of those stereotypes, and deserves earnest appreciation.

There is a comment to the article from Avshalom Beni, a secular lecturer at an Institute for Animal-Assisted Intervention at Hebrew University. He writes about students in a Charedi program who demonstrate “a profound sensitivity to animal welfare and are proving themselves to be capable and dedicated counselors and advisers.” He concludes:

Ancient Stereotypes die slowly, but once again I join the growing number of secular Jews who are inspired by the will and desire of a growing number of Haredim who are trying to reach out to Israeli society. Thanks to pioneering programs like this one, new inroads are being made towards mutual cooperation and appreciation.

Those familiar with organizations like Hatzalah, Zaka and Yad Sarah, to cite but three of countless examples, know that these are not really new inroads. Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum once wrote, “the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the chareidim] may be unparalleled among the communities of this country.” It is merely that these efforts receive scant coverage.

Acknowledgment of the stereotypes is an excellent step towards reducing them. With the Pew Report showing that the Charedi community is likely to take a much more prominent role in Jewish communal affairs, both in Israel and the United States, it is important that the stereotypes be replaced by honest understanding, and Levy (and Beni) and Ha’aretz are to be commended for their significant positive contribution.

Different Problems Require Different Solutions

August 31, 2015 at 2:23 pm

Upwards of a decade ago, a mother called me and asked what I might advise concerning her son, who was at risk of going “Off the Derech.” There were two problems. First of all, I never experienced the challenges of a frum teenager, and at that time had not yet been the parent of one. And second, my Kiruv work has always surrounded giving people a taste of Torah, a bit of inspiration. But even Kiruv must involve not merely teaching, but showing people a Torah life — developing an emotional attachment to Torah rather than simply whetting the intellect. I suspected even then that someone who grew up in a frum environment wasn’t going to be drawn back by intellectual discussions. I knew that I wasn’t the right person to advise her.

In a piece published on Torah Musings, Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman, professor of Tanakh at Bar-Ilan University, addresses the topic of young people leaving religion. He reviews a book describing the reduced attachment to religion of “millenials,” today’s young adults, and Rabbi Berman infers that “the struggles in our communities are part of a larger trend challenging traditional religious life in western culture” and are “not because of bad parents, or bad schools.”

Rabbi Berman is both a good friend from years past and a respected thinker, and his article is an excellent starting point for discussing this topic. Perhaps, too, there are differences between charedim and Modern Orthodox at play here. But I believe that by focusing upon intriguing similarities, he missed crucial differences between other communities and our own. Those differences show that both families and schools are making a very positive difference in our community — and also that there is more that both could be doing.

The most critical and revealing difference is that we are not facing similar losses. I say this from a Charedi perspective — I have heard from campus Kiruv professionals that there is a very high attrition rate for Orthodox students at four-year secular colleges, perhaps higher than 25%. I don’t know if this is correct, or what the numbers might be for the larger Modern Orthodox community, but contrary to what a Washington Post writer claims to have heard at a Tikvah seminar, the number of Charedim leaving a Torah lifestyle is nowhere near that high. Even the Pew Survey’s figure — that 17 percent of young adults raised Orthodox no longer are — seems outlandishly high where the Charedi community is concerned.

We may be so (justifiably) concerned about each individual who goes “OTD” that we imagine the numbers to be larger than they are. A recent article in Time magazine compared dating problems for women among the college-educated, the Mormons, and the “Yeshivish” charedim. What all three share in common is an oversupply of women. Women are now more likely to seek a college education than are men, apparently by a margin of 4:3. The Mormon Church is affected by the national drop-off in religious enthusiasm, which disproportionately affects men, to the point that one survey estimated there are now 60 Mormon women for every 40 men.

According to demographers, however, the cause of the Yeshivish “Shidduch crisis” is a combination of a rapidly growing population and boys marrying girls a few years their junior. There are reported to be 112 19-year-olds per 100 22-year-olds in our community — and since 22 and 19 seem to be the preferred ages to “enter the market” for boys and girls respectively, this creates a problem.

Why is this relevant? Because it is apparently true in our community, as outside it, that men are more likely to leave religion. According to Footsteps, an organization catering to Charedim (primarily Chasidim) turning secular, only one-third of their clients are women; by their accounting it seems men are twice as likely to leave. This being the case, I previously thought — and believe I wrote — that this, plus anecdotal evidence that women are marginally more likely to become Baalos Teshuvah, could be a factor in the “Shidduch crisis.” Yet there is no parallel issue among Chasidim, simply because they tend to marry people their own age — the fact that more boys than girls leave seems to have no demographic impact. And no one quoted by the author believed that the greater numbers of boys going OTD was a significant factor in the Yeshivish community either.

The second difference, which begins to explain our greater retention rate, is in the area of education. In this country, the two largest groups offering parochial schooling are the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jews; previous history suggests that the reason why we are now retaining such a high percentage of young adults is because our schools are by and large doing their job. The Mormons deliberately do not provide parochial alternatives “where there are adequate public schools available,” and the Southern Baptist Convention seems to provide far fewer parochial schools for their sixteen million SBC members than there are chadorim and day schools. The exposure to foreign ideas and lifestyles to which Rabbi Berman points comes at a later age for our children, and after a much more solid grounding in religious thought.

And finally, there is a significant difference in philosophy. Christianity is about faith, it is something they agree (and state proudly) cannot be proven. Judaism is, on the other hand, about things we know — beginning with the testimony of our collective ancestors. Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l told a chabura of Yeshiva students that each person should have five proofs why he knows that H’ created the world, and five proofs that H’ gave Moshe the Torah. He didn’t talk about belief, but about proof.

All of this being the case, I will both agree and disagree with Rabbi Berman concerning parents and schools. I agree with him that we don’t have a problem of bad parents or bad schools. But I do feel there is more that we could be doing, and would offer two of my own suggestions, one for parents and community that concurs with two of his, the other an addition for the schools:

1. Keep the Door Open — A student at Stern College, herself a Ba’alas Teshuvah, made the following insightful comment in an online forum:

I have never seen a memoir or heard of a case of someone going OTD from the Charedi world that didn’t involve some familial or personal abnormality, including being raised by grandparents because parents were unfit, having a parent die young, having parents who were BTs and therefore less family support, mental illness, etc. If the families were secular these would be seen as things that could make life difficult, but since they’re not, frumkeit is presented as the “causative” difficulty.

When challenged about other cases, she clarified that she meant the ones who had written or thought about writing memoirs, not those who simply “fall off” from observance. But one can say more generally that the great majority of those who leave the Torah community — including those who grew up in warm, loving, completely “normal” families, and had excellent relationships with their schools and teachers — do so primarily for emotional rather than intellectual reasons. It no longer makes sense (if it ever did) to cut off contact with errant family members in order to both reprimand them for bad decisions and deter further losses. On the contrary, maintaining an emotional bond is the best way to bring someone back.

The very title of Shulem Deen’s memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” is indicative. He is not stating a rule that when one leaves, one never returns. On the contrary, he writes that not everyone who goes, returns — correctly implying that many of them do. Many consider Teshuvah after leaving our community for a time, and return is most likely to happen when our community keeps the door open and the lights on. Those “exploring” outside the realm of observance should feel confident that they will be respected for rejoining us, rather than mocked for their departure, whenever they reappear in our shuls and communities.

2. Teach Emunah and Face Questions — The Internet is a problem because it can easily be a vehicle for the Yetzer HaRa. It should not, however, be an intellectual obstacle. Certainly we should not have a situation where a formerly Chassidic man claims that the sight of dinosaur bones started his outward journey. Even if we agree that this is ultimately an excuse rather than a real issue, why should he even be able to say such a thing?

Rabbi Berman writes that we must “legitimate the expression of doubt.” But “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” — knowing that our youth will face intellectual challenges and questions, we should be teaching the answers. The Haggadah gives the same posuk from the Chumash (verse from the Torah) to the child who does not know how to ask, as to the rasha. In other words, don’t wait for problems, teach the child the answers before he even knows how to ask hard questions. This is especially true in those communities and schools where children routinely go on to four-year secular colleges, but today almost everyone can expect exposure to foreign ideas and influences.

Parents and schools need to be part of addressing today’s challenges, rather than hiding from them. A local parent told me of a recent summer camp interaction between girls from Baltimore and New York. The New York girls were amazed to learn that in Baltimore schools they have open conversations about fundamentals of Emunah. As it turns out, an educator at the school attended by one of the New York girls is himself a well-known lecturer about these topics. But he can’t teach about them in his own school, because the parents won’t stand for it.

Similarly, the Rosh Yeshiva of a high school (outside New York) nixed a talk about Torah and science because it might “raise more questions than it answers.” Rav Wolbe zt”l said the opposite: “In a world where ‘הַשָּׁמַיִם מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹד-אֵ-ל; וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדָיו מַגִּיד הָרָקִיעַ’ (‘The heavens declare the honor of Hashem, and the sky tells the works of His Hands,’ Teh. 19:1), it is impossible that we will not find proofs of Emunah.” Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a similarly said it is a davar pashut that we don’t need to be concerned that honest talk about Emunah will be harmful to those who started without questions — it will only benefit. [For more on this, see “Where is the Passion?” by Rabbi Dovid Sapirman, Dialogue, Fall 5775/2014.]

Besides the importance of good parenting generally — and I would recommend again Rabbi Gordimer’s article on parenting — I would add one point about Shabbos guests, especially if they are not observant: they offer a good opportunity to discuss Emunah in front of your children without lecturing them about it.

Our community is by and large doing an excellent job, as the Pew Report shows. While others may be floundering for solutions to problems of diminishing affiliation, we are growing both in numbers and commitment. Yet there is always more that we could be doing, and it is in that spirit that I have offered these suggestions. May every child appreciate the tremendous gift that is his or her Jewish heritage.

Helping Your Brother

August 28, 2015 at 12:16 pm

In this week’s reading, the Torah commands us to help each other, and to avoid pain even to animals: “You shall not see the donkey of your brother or his ox falling on the path, yet lift your eyes from them; you shall surely right it with him.” [22: 4] It’s not just a Mitzvah to help; the Torah prohibits us from not helping.

Like everything else in life, however, we must balance this Commandment with other considerations. For example, if a person is leading his donkey along a path through a cemetery, and the observer is a Kohein, who is prohibited from entering a cemetery — the Kohein may not enter. In that case, he must hold himself back from helping.

But the Talmud [Bava Metzia 32a] gives us another example which is perhaps more surprising. If the owner abandons the animal and goes and sits down under a tree, and says “go do your Mitzvah” — then you have no obligation. The verse says you have to “right it with him,” not that you have to do his work for him.

What about the animal? In this situation, shouldn’t we help the poor creature? It’s obviously not the animal’s fault that its owner is heartless and wants to take advantage of another’s kindness.

The Torah understands well the law of unintended consequences. It’s not true that “good guys finish last.” On the contrary, it’s only our choice to do the right thing that enables us to feel true satisfaction for a “job well done.” Clearly, the person who abandons his own animal and tells someone else to “go do a Mitzvah” has not learned this. He thinks that other people exist to do his bidding; he is finding ways to take advantage of their kindness and their desire to do G-d’s will.

In this case, enabling the other person to take advantage would be detrimental — not so much to the person who helps and does the work, but to the person who is learning to exploit the generosity of others. Making sure that this person does not learn to take advantage of others is so important that it overwhelms the obligation to help the animal. Helping another person to be productive is much better than simply giving him a handout, even of “free labor.”

The story is told of someone entering the subway, who was approached by a man he understood to be a beggar. He gave the man a quarter and rushed to meet his train — but the other man ran to catch up with him, and give him one of the pencils he was selling. “Oh, I’m sorry,” said the hurried traveler, “I didn’t realize you were a merchant.”

Months later, the man selling pencils saw the same traveler, and brought him into his store. He told him to take anything he wants, because the whole store existed thanks to him. “You were the first person to make me think of myself as a merchant!”

People think about the immediate situation — like the poor donkey struggling to get up — and not about the future consequences. Sometimes what is best for a person isn’t what will help him right now, but what will lead to a better future. And that is where we should “lend a hand.”