Point Counterpoint: Keep the Focus on Jewish Substance

To the editor,

Rabbi Steven Wernick’s response (“Rebranding helps USCJ envision its future in a rapidly changing Jewish world”) to my op-ed, “Conservative Jews deserve more than PR,” is very interesting — yet saddening. Rabbi Pesach Lerner and I wrote about Jewish substance, and he differentiated between PR and branding. Regardless of that narrow distinction, neither can save a company selling a product of little interest to consumers.

His quote from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is apt indeed: “We will win Jewish (and universal) allegiance if Judaism is robust, if Judaism augments human life” (my emphasis added). It’s not about PR or branding, it’s about Judaism.

In that vein, Rabbi Wernick points out that “those impacted by Conservative Jewish communities” are “more likely” to be Jewishly educated and involved. More likely than whom — those who connect with no Jewish community at all? He makes a tremendous leap, making the bold assertion that these Jews are “highly engaged.” All the evidence at hand refutes that claim entirely.

He similarly states that we “denigrate” what he describes as a “diversity of Jewish wisdom and practice.” Yet we spoke of the beliefs, standards, and educational opportunities that the Conservative movement itself once considered mandatory. Diversity in Jewish practice is found in flourishing Jewish communities of North African, Iranian, Yemenite, German, Lithuanian, and Hungarian origin — often within blocks of each other, or side by side at the holy Western Wall.

Laxity vs. involvement is a poor-man’s diversity, and neither PR nor branding offers a rich solution.

—Rabbi Yaakov Menken, director of Project Genesis – Torah.org and co-editor of Cross-Currents.com

Rabbi Gordimer and his Critics

That Rabbi Gordimer has become the standard bearer in the face of the Open Orthodox onslaught is truly quite remarkable.

Until he started writing for Cross-Currents, we had not met, and it was only perhaps two years later that we spoke by phone for the first time. I have to say, the contrast between his clear, forceful writing and his soft-spoken persona could hardly be more profound. It is obvious that he is not a fighter by nature, and it is similarly clear that he is seeking no personal gain from his criticism of Open Orthodoxy.

This simply makes personal attacks upon him all the more unseemly, and I feel the need to rise on a question of personal privilege on his behalf.

I am truly impressed at the conclusion of the argument between Rabbi Gordimer and Dr. Shapiro, though, as I said, from what I know of Rabbi Gordimer I am not much surprised by his forgiving response. Dr. Shapiro himself confessed that he merely “knew people didn’t like OO because of women rabbis and partnership minyanim,” yet did not realize that “the opposition is much greater than that” — and that he now regrets his posting.

So I think we would do well to accept what RAG refers to as Dr. Shapiro’s “kind comments and messages clarifying that the issues were not personal.” I would like to critique the content of Dr. Shapiro’s posting with that understanding — to address what I view as unfair criticism after dissociating it from Dr. Shapiro himself.

The post in question spoke of RAG having “assumed the mantle of defender of the faith” and proceeded to excoriate him for failing to refer to Open Orthodox rabbis by name.

To address the latter issue first, Rabbi Gordimer has now been attacked both for making it overly clear whom he is speaking about, and for making it insufficiently clear. He was also similarly criticized for providing too little evidence of OO’s divergence from Torah, and then criticized for “obsessively” publishing the very quotes that were previously demanded. None of this, of course, is true. As Cross-Currents wrote when threatened with a lawsuit for publishing RAG’s essays:

Despite your assertion that you were attacked personally, in none of your chosen examples were you even quoted by name. It is the ideology of Open Orthodoxy and YCT, as expressed in your articles and those of your colleagues, that we, among many others, have criticized.

Omission of names makes it clear that RAG is interested in debating ideas, rather than expressing personal animus towards a writer.

As far as Rabbi Gordimer being cited as a “defender of the faith,” I question — is it not obvious to the well-read that Rabbi Gordimer is saying nothing new or revolutionary, nor relying upon his own judgment? YCT graduates are not accepted for RCA membership or for any position under the Conference of European Rabbis. I understand that Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg shlit”a refuses to test YCT graduates for semichah. The Agudah published a Kol Korei declaring Open Orthodoxy outside the pale, and just two years ago, Avi Weiss involved the New York Times and the senior Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee — Eliot Engel, who represents the district encompassing Riverdale — in his effort to force the Israeli Rabbinate to recognize even his own conversions, much less those of his YCT acolytes. [Reform and Conservative Rabbis, to be sure, immediately leaped onto his bandwagon.] I am unaware of any recognized Orthodox Rabbinic authority that authenticates Open Orthodoxy’s claim to be Orthodox.

The strident attacks on Rabbi Gordimer, offered in lieu of cogent rebuttals of his critiques, seem merely to prove that Open Orthodoxy would prefer that Rabbi Gordimer go away rather than entertain a sincere and open [sic] debate about their ideology.

Now I can’t speak for Rabbi Gordimer. I rarely write about Open Orthodoxy myself, and confess a lack of interest in their latest expression of deviation from traditional Judaism. But there are clearly many others who do not understand, and media organs like the NY Jewish Week, Ha’Aretz and others delighted to misrepresent Open Orthodox figures and institutions as reflecting the world of observant Jewry. For those reasons, I know that Rabbi Gordimer’s writings continue to serve a valuable function.

What I think we might learn from this is the strength and vibrancy of Orthodoxy today. When sociologist Marshall Sklare called Orthodoxy “a case study in institutional decay” in 1955, no one was clamoring to be called “Orthodox.” The Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism broke away from the Conservative movement in 1983 when JTS decided to ordain women, and dropped “Conservative” from its name within several years. It, too, never tried to call itself Orthodox.

Now we have a new movement which objectively lies somewhere to the left of the UTJ in its Hashkafah and practices — yet which insists on describing itself as a flavor of Orthodoxy, rather than accurately as a new heterodox denomination.

I think this goes beyond the news coverage that they gain — a heterodox congregation hiring a woman Rabbi is, after all, hardly newsworthy in 2016. It is because today everyone recognizes that the modern liberal movements are in precipitous decline. The Conservative movement is hiring a PR firm to survey members and determine how to be current, as their members flee to Reform temples. The progeny of those Reform temples are, in turn, fueling the growth of “Jews of no religion.”

Today, the heads of Open Orthodoxy know that if they want to have a future, they have to be “Orthodox.” That being the case, the ones being most egregiously harmed and deceived by their use of the term are they themselves — because Jewish continuity is not maintained by using a name assigned to us by the Reformers of the 1840’s, but by fealty to an ideology Commanded to us over 3,150 years prior.

And that brings me to one final element of the criticism, expressed in a comment to Rabbi Gordimer’s reply. Dr. Shapiro writes:

There are lots of good fellow Jews who identify with OO and we shouldn’t be looking to throw them out and say they are not legitimate even if we have different views than them. The OO Jews I know affirm the divinity of Torah etc.

I have not read anything from Rabbi Gordimer suggesting that anyone be “thrown out.” On the contrary, it is the false ideas which should be discarded, and the precious Jews retained.

This situation is comparable to sincere graduates of Conservative conversion programs (and their Jewish fiances/spouses), those who may be sincerely dedicated to Judaism to the best of their understanding, and dismayed to learn for the first time that the Orthodox world (and Israel’s rabbinate) considers them not to be Jews. If we respond honestly, appreciating their sincerity yet explaining that they were guided through an invalid procedure and taught serious and unacceptable deviations from the Torah’s ideology, is this somehow tantamount to “throwing them out?” With vanishingly few exceptions, every Jew today must be greeted as a “good fellow Jew” — but does that mean we accept the teachings of the Conservative movement as “good fellow Judaism?”

Rabbi Adlerstein recently posted two examples of innovative Kiruv — using current events and familiar concepts to make a point, but above all being honest about what Judaism stands for. I have never seen or heard Rabbi Gordimer express hostility or disdain for an individual — only antipathy to patently foreign ideas, from whatever source, being misrepresented as Torah Judaism.

I notice that RAG’s survey of essays for Parshas Terumah had no mention of Open Orthodoxy. Perhaps his critiques are having a positive impact, and a course correction is underway at YCT.

Interview on Open Orthodoxy

I have to give credit to reporter David Ze’ev and Kol Yisrael, The Israel Broadcasting Authority’s national station, for investigating both sides of the Open Orthodox story. The JTA (like most of the Jewish media outside the Orthodox world) seems prepared to declare Open Orthodoxy “Orthodox” without question. David Ze’ev is of a different sort, and this is what resulted (content owned by the IBA):

DZ: Rabbi Yaakov Menken is very involved with Cross-Currents.com, which has what some refer to as a go-to source for the perspective of traditional Jews; Rabbi Menken speaks out against Open Orthodoxy.

YM: Well, it’s very interesting, you know people are talking about it with regards to women rabbis, etc., and that’s almost a red herring, because it’s something where… the key here is that Open Orthodoxy is describing itself as an Orthodox movement, using that moniker of being Orthodox, but according to all of the Rabbinic organizations in the world, nobody is certifying them as Orthodox except they themselves.

DZ: I mean what do you need, what is it called to be certified as Orthodox?

YM: Well, certifying is perhaps a loose term. We should understand that Orthodoxy is basically a synonym for traditional, observant Judaism. It’s not a moniker that the Orthodox made up for themselves. On the contrary, as Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch pointed out in the 1860s, this was the name that the Reform gave to the old, backwards, traditional Jews. And so Orthodox was supposed to mean old and stale, and what it really means is traditionally observant.

DZ: So, to the substance, do you Rabbi Menken disapprove of women having a greater role? Most of these people from this, for example Yeshivat Maharat, are not calling themselves rabbis, they get ordained, they have more of an education; are you against more inclusion of more segments of the population? That’s what the people in Open Orthodoxy say that they are.

YM: Again, with regards to Open Orthodoxy all of that is simply a sideshow. It’s not really the core issue. There are definitely different schools of thought with regards with what women should or should not be involved with, and current circumstances, and this and that, all of which are certainly able to be discussed within a context of observance. But what’s being discussed here, really, is not a particular Halachic observance. It’s a philosophy that says oh, we’re going to claim to be Orthodox while believing, for example, challenging the historicity of the Torah itself, saying that Abraham made a horrible mistake and was prepared to murder his son rather than follow the Divine Commandment, when we know in the text itself it says that G-d rewarded him for doing so. It’s saying that Moses taught G-d a thing or two about who G-d needed to be. I mean, these are things that are totally foreign to what it means to be observant, to follow G-d’s law, and they’re claiming to be an Orthodox group while they do it.

DZ: Rabbi Yaakov Menken, who is also founder and director of Project Genesis, and creator of its website Torah.org. More of that on Sunday’s 12:30 p.m. newscast.

You can hear that second interview here:

One More Kiddush HaShem, One Less Anti-Orthodox

From Kikar HaShabbat:

Kiddush HaShem: that’s what this Chassidic Bachur made with 130,000 Sha”Ch he found at a bus stop

A young “anti-Orthodox” man, as he testified about himself, lost 130,000 shekels at a bus stop and could not believe his eyes: Nehemiah Indursky, a 19.5 year old Belzer Chassid was waiting at the station with an exciting surprise.

The Mitzvah of returning a lost object by a Belzer bachur went viral: last Friday, a non-religious person wrote an exciting post in which he described an Orthodox bachur who performed hashovas aveidah, returning a lost object, with a particularly high amount of money.

The man wrote that he forgot a bag with 130,000 shekels in cash at a bus station in Haifa. He said that after half an hour he returned, completely out of his mind with worry that someone had taken the bag. “I thought that with all that, maybe a miracle will still happen and I will find it.”

xr3p7i6z__w470h289q95“When I got to the station, there was a Charedi bachur sitting there, and he asked me if he could help me. I told him the story and he told me: ‘I came here 25 minutes ago and saw the bag. I opened it and saw a large sum of money. I told myself that I’ll wait here a quarter of an hour, and if the man didn’t come, I’ll put up a note with the number of my cellphone so he could reach me.

“‘Fifteen minutes later, when no one came, I told myself that since I live in Jerusalem and possibly the one who lost the money needs it urgently, I will wait for some time. I said a Psalm that he should come soon, and not 10 minutes later you arrived.’ The bachur asked the one who lost the bag for signs that it was his, and returned the money intact.

“Until the moment I finished counting, I could not believe it was with me or that I could find this at all (I was so ‘anti-Orthodox’… but only until now). I wanted to give him a nice gift, but he absolutely did not want to accept it, saying that it is his Mitzvah” excitedly said the one who lost the money.

In an interview with Kol Hai radio, the bachur, Nehemiah Indursky, a 19 year old Belzer Chassid who studies in the Belz Yeshiva, recounted thoughts went through his head about good things one can do with that amount of money, like giving ma’aser (charity). But then he said to himself that this money does not belong to him, and the owner needed it.

Nehemiah decided to wait another fifteen minutes. “I said, ‘Master of the World, I passed my test, now You need to do Your part and send him.”

If you think this reminds you of a story you heard before, you would be right.

Pharoah and the Jews: a Case Study in Anti-Semitism

Israel-Apartheid-WeekThe Biblical Book of Exodus begins with the tale of Pharoah and the Jews under Egyptian rule. Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the story, but few notice that it is the first account of organized, institutional anti-Semitism against the Jews.

At the end of Genesis, we learn that the insight and guidance of one prescient Jew saved the entire nation of Egypt from starvation and anarchy. Joseph, the son of Jacob, correctly foresaw that the region was destined to enjoy seven years of plenty, not knowing that seven dark years of famine would follow. He suggested that Pharoah build storehouses and implement a mandatory 20% tax during the years of bounty, rather than allowing the populace to consume and waste the excess.

Though Joseph came before Pharoah as an imprisoned slave, Pharoah was so taken with his foresight and advice that he appointed Joseph to be his second-in-command, and placed him in charge of this crucial project. Joseph was so successful that, as we see from the text itself, the Egyptians were able to not only feed their own, but even to sell the surplus to residents of other nations – such as ten brothers from Cana’an. Once reunited as a family, Joseph brought the entire clan to settle as a separate but loyal community of citizens under Egyptian rule.

Years later, a new Pharoah was crowned, one who claimed to be unaware of the Jews’ pivotal contribution to Egypt’s survival and enhanced international reputation. He insisted that something must be done about the Jews, for they had too much power. Otherwise, he said, the Jews could show disloyalty, joining those who come to wage war and (commentators differ on this point) either plundering Egypt’s wealth and carrying it off to Cana’an, or even expelling the Egyptians and taking the real estate for themselves.

To be certain, all of Pharaoh’s accusations were baseless lies – until his own blind hatred made them reality. He not only enslaved the Jews, he made their lives impossible, and tried to kill them out by drowning all newborn Jewish boys. The oppressed Jews cried out to G-d, Who punished the Egyptians with a series of plagues that killed their crops, their livestock, and even their firstborn sons. Oral tradition teaches that the Egyptians willingly handed over their wealth to the Jews so that they would leave and stop the plagues.

In the end, another bout of irrational hatred consumed Pharaoh. He ran to wage war against the Jews and drag them back – and he and his entire army were drowned.

Perhaps you find yourself among the many millions of people who believe this story to be nothing more than an interesting fable. If so, it is all the more necessary to ponder why it might be that although the Egyptian nation of that era has disappeared in the sands of history, the lies that Pharoah believed and told about the Jews are precisely those that continue to be circulated to this day:

  • The Jews have too much power and control.
  • They care only about themselves.
  • They think they are superior to us.
  • They are disloyal.
  • They will make war against the innocent.
  • They want to take our money and property.
  • They want to kill or exile us.
  • The Jews will do to us the very things we now plan to do to them.
  • And finally, all of this is the Jews’ own fault.

To which we might add one more: the Jews talk too much about their victimization at the hands of others. After all, they’ve been reading this story for over 3,300 years.

The Model is Working

0000dafc_bigWhatever it was that I wanted to say about Stephen Cohen’s “Lessons Learned From Orthodoxy’s Dramatic Growth” has been entirely overshadowed by Rabbi Gordimer’s marvelous essay. Although I might have tried to be more generous (halevai more non-Orthodox Jews would “pay the PRICE” and stay that much more involved for another generation), Reb Avrohom is unquestionably correct both that “the qualitative returns of such [non-Orthodox but heavily-involved] cases are far, far lower,” and in his explanation of why this is so.

Some of the comments to Rabbi Gordimer’s piece indicate, though, that my own thoughts on Prof. Cohen’s article are still relevant.

I’m not quite sure how Rabbi Gordimer could possibly be called “triumphalist” — he merely had the temerity to explain why the Orthodox are growing at an astounding rate. One can hardly fault him for terming the data “jaw-dropping,” as there are few more accurate adjectives with which to portray it. A veteran analyst of Chasidic demographics, himself the father of over a dozen children, refused to believe the results of Marvin Schick’s 2014 Census of Jewish Day Schools until I prevailed upon Dr. Schick to send him a copy. And who could blame him — what school system doubles in size in a 15-year period, as Chasidic schools did between 1998 and 2013? The fact that Jews were abandoning Torah observance earlier in the twentieth century only further accentuates the phenomenal success of the educational model now in use across the Orthodox community.

When we talked about exponential growth twenty-five years ago, no one said we were being “triumphalist” but rather “unrealistic.” I recall a Reform Rabbi confidently rebutting me with numbers from the first National Jewish Population Survey (1990), which showed that the Orthodox were consistently less than 7 percent of the Jewish population. The boom that was already quite evident within our community — the blossoming of Jewish communities in Brooklyn, Lakewood, Monsey and elsewhere — coincided with the passing of an elderly cohort of nominally-Orthodox Jews, who self-identified as Orthodox based upon synagogue preference rather than solid commitment. Thus the Council of Jewish Federations spent millions of dollars in order to entirely miss the coming transformation of American Jewish life.

Today, the dividing line in Jewish demographics between Orthodox and Non-Orthodox Jews is so obvious that no statistician can ignore it — the new question is whether others will study our model to see what is working. In that regard, Prof. Cohen deserves kudos for daring to say (from his office at Hebrew Union College, no less) that the Orthodox are doing something right in this specific, critical area, and for suggesting that others emulate our model. Last year, after accepting an article on this very topic from Rabbi Pesach Lerner and myself, The Forward editors read it — at which point they hemmed, hawed, and eventually declined to share it with their readers.

At the same time, we are prone to continue to make the same error that plagued the demographers of previous years — conflating any form of “Orthodox Jews” into a monolithic construct. Rabbi Micha Berger commented that “17% of our children elect to leave the American Orthodox community” but added that “it’s apparently constant across all segments of Orthodoxy.” This number comes from the Pew Survey, and as I said in a previous essay, this figure is “outlandishly high where the Charedi community is concerned.”

We should refer back to Rabbi Meir Goldberg’s comment on that previous essay: when he asked two professionals in Lakewood how many of the over 10,000 teens are actually “OTD,” they said no more than 300, and “the vast majority eventually return.” That means that in Lakewood the “attrition rate” is under 3% and probably under 1%. Similarly, Footsteps, the magnificently well-publicized and well-funded organization helping people abandon Judaism — primarily though not exclusively from Chasidic homes — proudly states that it has served over 1100 people in 12 years. Per the Avi Chai study, Chasidic schools alone produced 55,000 graduates during that period, meaning less than 2 percent are leaving. Footsteps can accurately state the demand for its services is “growing exponentially” because the Chasidic community itself is doing exactly that.

And that is the larger point to take away from both the Pew Survey data and Prof. Cohen’s analysis: that growing numbers of individual problems are symptoms of the success of the overall model, rather than its failure or impending collapse. It only makes sense that the number of OTD teens should be growing, even if that reflects a constant or smaller percentage of a rapidly-increasing teen population. Certainly, the community has vastly more resources to help these children, as well as those with learning disabilities, medical conditions and other issues — because a larger community means a larger number of children evidencing any of these problems.

I would argue that even Open Orthodoxy is evidence of the growth and stature of Torah observance in the Jewish world today. A generation ago, adherents of “Open Orthodoxy” would not have hesitated to call themselves right-wing Conservative (i.e. the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, which eventually dropped the “C” from its name), while encouraging precisely the same changes in Jewish philosophy and practice. Today, everyone knows that the vibrancy and commitment found within Orthodoxy are not replicated elsewhere — and thus it is important to OO to call itself Orthodox despite its abandonment of basic tenets of Orthodoxy.

I know that some will read this essay, as well, and conclude that I am being “triumphalist.” But again, that’s simply a pejorative reserved for the Orthodox, to be used (as David F commented) whenever Orthodox Jews mention the successes of Orthodox Judaism, and only now that the rectitude of what was said decades ago is obvious to all. No one said Simeon Maslin, then President of what was then called the UAHC, was being “triumphalist” when he said that Reform, and not Orthodox, are the “authentic” Jews. There is no triumphalism in rejecting a pattern of criticizing charedi Judaism and its leaders for their own successes. The Gedolim knew a great deal more than their critics of decades past; that, too, is a conclusion drawn directly from the available data.

The Symptoms are Not the Problem

Doctor_discusses_x-ray_with_patientIn the wake of the declaration by the leading rabbis of Agudath Israel of America (a body called the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the Council of Torah Sages) regarding Open Orthodoxy and its institutions, many seem to have confused issues of Jewish practice with Jewish doctrine.

The JTA’s article about the Council’s statement concluded by noting that “it comes days after the RCA formally adopted a policy prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis,” thus connecting and implying a close relationship between the two. The Jerusalem Post discussed the Agudah and RCA statements within one article, further blurring key distinctions. Many comments in social media, as well, focused upon women as rabbis or other particular observances of Open Orthodoxy as issues of concern to the Agudah Council.

The Forward, always anxious to cast Charedim as angry or violent, declared that “Agudah Rabbis Declare War.” Asher Lopatin, Dean of Open Orthodoxy’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), wrote a response to the statement in which he argued that Open Orthodoxy stands for “creating an inclusive, welcoming, open community, where passionate Jews can, and should, disagree, but should never seek to impose their own ideas on others…” and will “continue to build an Orthodox community which brings us together rather than divides us.”

The Moetzes, however, made no mention of women rabbis. It did not discuss observance of particular elements of Halacha, Jewish law. And, of course, it said nothing about political control or impinging upon the right of any Jew, passionate or otherwise, to disagree. A medical analogy is apt: if someone has headaches due to a life-threatening illness, Tylenol will not cure him; attention must focus upon the underlying disease.

Lopatin is being less than forthright. For better or worse, “Orthodox” is a moniker with meaning. In the common vernacular, Orthodox Judaism is understood to be that “form” of Judaism committed to the credo maintained by Jews for thousands of years. Just as the Reform movement sought to unilaterally change the definition of Judaism 200 years ago, Open Orthodoxy seeks to impose a new definition upon the word “Orthodox” (and has even attempted to stifle dissent as it does so).

The statement of the Moetzes addresses one issue, and one issue only: that Open Orthodoxy and its institutions “reject the basic tenets of our faith,” and therefore “is not a form of Torah Judaism.” It is not about specific Open Orthodox practices, which Halachic opinions it follows, or who they do or don’t count for a minyan. The issue, said the Council, is what Open Orthodoxy believes.

As the Agudath Israel spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, told the media, this is something the rabbis were “mulling around for months.” Nothing that they said is either surprising or new to those who have followed discussions of this new movement.

Over two years ago, Zev Farber, recipient of the highest form of ordination from Chovevei Torah and the former coordinator of the Vaad HaGiyur, the Conversion Council of Open Orthodoxy’s “International Rabbinic Forum,” wrote that “the Deuteronomic prophet,” whom he pointedly did not identify as Moses, “was still a human being” of “limited scope… [who] could not reasonably be expected to work towards correcting faults he did not see.”

Needless to say, this is to traditional Jewish belief as a ham sandwich is to kashrus.

Yet rather than condemning this statement outright — much less questioning the validity of conversions conducted under Farber’s supervision — others within the Open Orthodox community called this merely “a non-conventional answer” at “the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject.”

The above is but one example. What the Moetzes concluded, after examining statements and conduct across the range of Open Orthodox institutions, was that it could not remain silent, hoping that this sort of excess would disappear and more sober opinions, ones consonant with traditional Judaism, would dominate. On the contrary, representatives of Open Orthodoxy continue to state, and educate others to adopt, beliefs not merely at “the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking” but several light years beyond.

There are those, particularly in the Reform movement, who advocate for a “big tent,” in which most anything can claim to represent “Judaism.” Traditional Judaism has always taken a different approach, requiring observance of 613 Commandments and a similarly comprehensive list of beliefs, thirteen of which are so fundamental that Maimonides identified them as mandatory for anyone wishing to self-identify as a “Torah-observant” Jew — that which we have called “Orthodox” in recent centuries.

There are several practical ramifications of the Council’s statement, all of which are straightforward. Graduates of Open Orthodox institutions (regardless of gender) should not be considered Orthodox rabbis, at least as the term Orthodox is commonly understood. Orthodox synagogues should not appoint Open Orthodox rabbis to lead them. Communal organizations should not present lectures by “Orthodox” rabbis who are, in actuality, “Open Orthodox.” And, perhaps most critically, the media should no longer claim that “Orthodox” rabbis are entertaining a new idea or change in Jewish practice that only Open Orthodoxy could possibly condone.

In the end, it’s not about women, exclusion, or politics; it’s about truth in advertising. It’s about ensuring that when people are told that a particular opinion is “Orthodox” or grounded in traditional thought, it actually is. And in that regard, the Agudah’s Council has done the Jewish public a great service.

The Har Nof Massacre, Knife Attacks, and BDS

After nearly a year of fighting for his life, a fifth rabbi just passed away, murdered during morning prayers last November. The terrorists of that morning did not target a discotheque, settlement or military base, but a synagogue in West Jerusalem. They proudly desecrated a Jewish House of Worship in order to murder religious leaders, American, British and now Canadian, all men who came to the Holy Land only to immerse themselves in learning and teaching.

The Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, the “moderate” Arab leader, celebrated the “martyrs” who butchered these innocent scholars.


Just two days prior to the Rabbi’s passing, a pair of knife-wielding assailants stabbed an eighteen-year-old charedi (ultra-Orthodox) man outside a synagogue in Beit Shemesh – the latest in a wave of violence against Jews in Israel. Ponder this ghastly detail: witnesses saw the attackers attempt to board a schoolbus filled with charedi children.

There is a pattern to these attacks. The Jihadists have not, as some argue, targeted Israelis at random. An extraordinary number of the victims have been in uniform – but not that of an IDF soldier, symbol of the “occupation” they purportedly oppose. Rather, a disproportionate number of those targeted – as in the examples cited above – have been visibly Jewish, clad in the distinctive attire of Orthodox Jews.

For numerous reasons, a terrorist concerned about the current political dispute would view Charedi Jews as unfavorable targets. Peaceful scholars of ancient texts, the charedim are underrepresented in Israeli’s military. Jews of the “old Yishuv” moved to Jerusalem long before the Zionist movement existed, without a scent of nationalist aspirations. Mainstream charedi Rabbis have consistently approved the principle of ceding land for true and lasting peace.

There is even the infamous “Niturei Karta” fringe group that calls for the destruction of Israel – though rejected by other charedim, they at least dress the part. This being the case, a terrorist attacking someone in charedi garb might conceivably be assaulting a political ally.

Yet despite all of the above, stabbers excessively target Orthodox neighborhoods and Orthodox Jews. This is not the “Intifada of the Knife,” but the “Intifada of Unmasked Anti-Semitism.” It is not about occupation or even about Israel; it is about Jews.

Supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel claim to be different, modeled upon the boycott of South Africa. This, however, is belied by troubling facts. No one during that era picketed individual South African businesses, or threw their products off store shelves. No one contemplated requiring an artist of South African descent to disavow South Africa’s open racism before performing. And, of course, no one paraded through streets lifting knives overhead, like a young boy sitting on his father’s shoulders proudly did at a recent BDS demonstration in London.

This is not to say, however, that it is challenging to find a previous boycott endorsing hatred and even violence towards Jews – given the Nazi boycotts of the 1930s. That is the accurate paradigm. Again and again, today’s purported “anti-Israel” demonstrations slip into a familiar and ugly pattern of anti-Semitic bigotry.

Why are the Regents of the University of California forced to address increasing acts of anti-Semitism at campuses statewide? It is no mystery. At UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Davis, BDS campaigns immediately and inevitably led to anti-Semitic vandalism and posters – swastikas, grafitti such as “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” and “grout out the Jews,” even flyers blaming Jews for 9/11. At UCLA, divestment activists questioned the eligibility of a candidate for student government solely because she is Jewish. For weeks following BDS events, Jewish students report verbal and even physical harassment for wearing signs of Jewish identity, whether skullcaps or Magen David necklaces.

BDS activists can neither claim that this is mere coincidence, nor that they are uninvolved. Attendees at divestment meetings note the repetition of common anti-Semitic canards such as Jewish control of government and wealth, and claims that marginalization of Jewish students is justified by the Mideast conflict. Invited speakers characterize grisly murders of Jews as a “response to occupation,” claim to be merely “anti-Israel” while posting anti-Semitic memes to Facebook, and whitewash Hamas – a terror organization whose charter calls for genocide, and whose leaders openly celebrate the murder of Jewish civilians and even children – as a “progressive, left-wing” organization merely leading the “resistance” against Israel.

Precisely because honest criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, the BDS campaigns of today must be opposed and condemned. Groups sponsoring these events appear unable to tell the difference, and routinely feature speakers who cross the line from one to the other. “Anti-Israel” cannot continue to serve as a code phrase for incitement and anti-Semitism – precisely what is found so pervasively today.

Vegans and Kapparos

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.

Ultra-Orthodox Ministers Are Some of Israel’s Best

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.

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