Upon the End of 25 Years of Deception

For months, as the Women For the Wall fought for the right of women to pray at the Wall undisturbed, we have heard from many, even within the Orthodox community, that really W4W should just have ignored the Women Of the Wall. Or as one pulpit Rabbi put it, “The WOW were not proselytizing anyone, they were not trying to win converts, they were not trying to make a revolution.”

Oops. Actually, they were.

These rabbis, from Shlomo Riskin on down, are now left to contemplate their naivete concerning WOW. Since they ignored WOW founders Rivka Haut and Susan Aranoff, who wrote (many months ago) in the Times of Israel that the reason WOW must remain at the Kosel is because, in reference to religious women (esp. charedim), they will “change their worldview,” now they must deal with the reality of Anat Hoffman admitting that this poorly-hidden agenda was, in fact, their continuous goal. WOW’s leading cheerleader in the press, Judy Maltz of HaAretz, reported the following after Hoffman’s conference call with WOW supporters, in which she defended their recent decision to move (with a ridiculous collection of conditions, but that’s for another article) to Robinson’s Arch:

Among the factors that brought about the change of heart within the organization, she said, was the realization that changing the mindset of Orthodox Jews was not possible. “Women of the Wall is the right group for bringing about change in Israel but not the right group for bringing about change in the Orthodox world,” she said. “I’m not sure that a group which has members from all the different streams of Judaism is the right one for doing something like this.”

In other words, WOW’s mission statement, claiming that they only want “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall,” was never more than a facade for WOW’s true mission, to “bring about change in the Orthodox world.” Having concluded that WOW is not “the right one for doing something like this,” Hoffman has decided to pack out for the greener pastures of Robinson’s Arch, where, of course, they will be able to wear prayer shawls, read from the Torah, and do whatever else they please.

Hoffman also went much further, conceding that a plaza equipped with a mechitzah, 100 Sifrei Torah, hundreds of prayer books and its own Rabbinic authority might, after all, be considered a traditionally Jewish religious space, and that those who use this space regularly have rights, as well:

Our Haredi sisters also have rights, and we saw last Rosh Chodesh that they really don’t want – maybe not all of them, but many of them – do not want to see a woman in a tallit and tefillin, and they also have rights. I think it’s absolutely fine that the state gives the Kotel rabbi absolute authority over the Haredi space.

This quite astounding achievement could not have been brought about without Women For the Wall. They basically saved the possibility of a place for traditional prayer at the Kotel for all of us (on Channel 2, Hoffman once contemplated an era where people would be shocked to learn that there had once been a mechitzah at the plaza)… and along the way, taught a few Rabbis what it means to trust a politician, like the former Meretz Jerusalem City Council member turned religious activist!

Women of the Wall: Praying, or Disturbing Prayer?

It is a pleasure to note that two active members of the Women Of the Wall, Susan Silverman and Dahlia Lithwick, have attempted to address several arguments which, they claim, have been made by writers who oppose them, especially the founders of the Women For the Wall (The Kotel is for Us, Too: The Forward, June 14, 2013, also published as Dispelling nine myths about Women of the Wall: HaAretz, June 11, 2013). Dialogue is something which the leaders of W4W, Ronit Peskin and Leah Aharoni, have consistently invited, yet until now they have been rebuffed. Nonetheless, I think it would be premature to call this truly a dialogue between the two groups — and, perhaps predictably, neither HaAretz nor The Forward was interested in publishing a response to the challenges laid down.

If there is one thing upon which secular and Jewish scholars agree, it is the importance of referring back to primary sources. Whether it comes from Shakespeare, Einstein or Maimonides, that I may quote an idea accurately does not make it mine. If we look again at Silverman and Lithwick’s examples of arguments against them, we find that most of them are well sourced in statements by the founders and leaders of Women of the Wall. Though they quoted Ronit Peskin, Leah Aharoni, Jonathan Rosenblum, Avi Shafran and myself, the simple fact is that the Women of the Wall are arguing with themselves.

For example, Silverman and Lithwick insist that “we have no objection to Haredi women, or men, praying as they choose, and no desire to evangelize or inspire them.” Their beef should not be with W4W, but with Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut, two founders of WOW, for saying the opposite:

WOW models to all Jewish women who pray at the Kotel that women can take control over their own religious lives… This represents a revolution in haredi lives… Their women will be influenced, strengthened, perhaps even demand change… And that is why WOW must win the struggle to remain at the Kotel. Our cause transcends women praying, women wearing tallitot. It goes directly to the heart of Jewish women’s lives in all spheres.

To “live and let live,” Silverman and Lithwick will have to join a group that shares that philosophy. It is wrong for them to imply that W4W have no grounds to object, much less to imply that they do so violently. Both video and reports from Shmuel Rosner (hardly a W4W supporter) show that W4W have tried to get troublemakers to simmer down and/or leave. Unless Women of the Wall wish to take direct responsibility for the death threats against the Chief Rabbis, the Rabbi of the Kotel, and assorted Knesset members, they cannot impugn W4W, an organization of women only, based upon the misbehavior of the 50 young men who have assisted WOW with PR and fundraising since long before W4W was formed.

The writers, of course, deny that WOW wants media awareness — but you can’t run a public campaign to launch “a revolution in Haredi lives” without it, and once again they find themselves arguing with the rest of their own group. One of WOW’s only two staff people is their PR Director, and WOW has hired an external media consultant as well. Anat Hoffman said that she joined WOW not to pray, but to demonstrate: “I had a folding table and they asked me to join them. You know, for demonstrations you always need a folding table and a megaphone, and I have both.” Hoffman now Chairs their Board. After their most recent event, member Lior Nevo told the press: “at least they notice us now.” If they were coming to the Wall to pray to G-d, then where would being noticed by other human beings come into the picture?

The writers concede that WOW has a much broader agenda than prayer. Hoffman has both proposed that “for six hours a day the Wall will be a national monument, open to others but not to Orthodox men,” and stated (while wearing her Tallis on the BBC) that the Western Wall is merely a stepping stone: “when you change the holiest site for the Jewish people, you’re actually asking ‘why not?’ about a variety of other life choices dictated to Israelis.”

Thus the argument against WOW has nothing at all to do with typical non-Orthodox women. It is whether the women who are regular denizens of the Western Wall should object to being told that they have “secondary status,” worship an “archaic, alien and repulsive” Judaism, and are “forced to obey ultra-misogynist views of what women are allowed to do at a public holy site” — while they are trying to pray.

Is disturbing the prayers of others the right time and place to pursue change? One who answers “yes” evidences that he or she doesn’t have the faintest comprehension of what prayer is. Indeed, one of their recent attendees wrote that “I don’t know how to pray anyway,” and stated that her first activity, upon arrival, was to “choose a potential victim to argue with.”

While Hoffman, Aranoff, Haut and Reform Rabbi Elianna Yolkut clearly think this type of activity is appropriate, the paltry showing of the Women of the Wall each month indicates that most Israelis — those who pray regularly, and those who don’t — at least understand that prayer must be respected. When Likud MK Miri Regev saw for herself what WOW was doing, she said that they should have gone to the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel. The few exceptions, as the writers again concede, are primarily Americans.

While seven of its ten Board and Staff are American-born, the problem isn’t that WOW is filled with American immigrants, so much as American tourists. Lithwick herself is “living in Jerusalem for the year.” Project OTZMA and Hebrew Union College’s Year in Israel programs claim to be opportunities to learn from Israelis — yet WOW draws much of its numbers from those programs. Nor does it end there; Elianna Yolkut lectured Leah Aharoni (of Kochav Yaakov) about Judaism in Israel from her loft in New York. The land founded by refugees seeking religious liberty has become a leading exporter of religious colonialism.

As a teenager, a cousin’s Reform Bat Mitzvah was enough to give me a strong impression that what goes on in a Reform Temple is performance, not prayer — and the fact that WOW draws so much of its strength from American Reform Rabbinical candidates does precious little to change my mind. It takes a non-Rabbi to doubt the righteousness of their path; in a moment of honest self-reflection, Rachel Frank considered that she probably shouldn’t be telling Israelis how to do Judaism during her few remaining months in Israel.

So, should we then conclude that Americans don’t understand prayer or its importance? That would be an inaccurate generalization. Even most American visitors and students, when they see WOW’s activities, leave it a wide berth — thus after 25 years, their most aggressive publicity and busing campaign yet garnered only 250 people.

WOW has vastly more support among those in the United States who have never seen any of this for themselves, but learn of events only through the careful filter of the dominant Jewish media. From Silverman and Lithwick’s valient attempts to cover for the statements of WOW’s own leadership, it appears they understand that WOW’s support depends upon American Jewry continuing to believe that the WOW wants nothing more than to pray. The words of their own leaders, however, tell a very different story.

Remember that “Hate Crime?”

If you’ve followed the news in Israel at all, you probably remember the shooting rampage at an “LGBT Youth Center” in Tel Aviv. [If you don’t know the acronym, good for you, and please let me not be the one to inspire you to look it up.] With absolutely no evidence whatsoever, it was immediately assumed that the shooter was charedi, and that it was a hate crime:

“This hate crime needs to be a turning point and to give strength,” [MK Tzipi] Livni told hundreds of Israelis who rallied in Tel Aviv to protest the attack, in which 15 people were also wounded.

Mike Hamel, the head of the Aguda, Israel’s LGBT organization, said such an attack was unprecedented in Israel.

“We have joined the list of ‘civilized’ countries in which hatred is the standard,” he said. “I don’t know whether the incident was directed at youth, but it appears that it was directed at the community. This is baseless hatred that cost us dearly – this is what needs to be understood.”

Hamel said that “elements represented by [Shas leaders] Eli Yishai and Benizri that are fostering hatred are still stronger than the increasingly favorable attitude toward [deviance].”

This led to a global campaign of anti-Haredi incitement. A headline from a Dallas LGBT news source even acknowledged (after 50,000 people rallied in Tel Aviv in support of the “LGBT community” after the shooting) that maybe, possibly, the narrative that everyone was taking for granted was wrong: “Tel Aviv shooting update: Killer may not have been ultra-Orthodox extremist.” Really? Ya think?

Well, last week’s headline that “[that] community reels over arrests in youth center shooting” could hardly be more accurate. It turns out that one of those arrested is the Director of the Center… not because he was part of the shooting, but for the same reason the center he led was targeted.

Even now, of course, you’ll still find someone calling it a hate crime — in a desperate attempt to cover the fact that the director of the center is now accused of an assault upon one of the youth at the center, the younger brother of two of the shooters. Never mind, he says, that this was obviously a revenge killing — that the shooters came looking for the director, and then launched a rampage when they couldn’t find him. Since the two drop-outs involved “used to be” charedi, therefore “the hatred of [deviance] inherent in Jewish Orthodoxy rubbed off on them,” and therefore the Book of Leviticus is responsible after all. I kid you not.

It’s true that hatred and bigotry still flourish in society; obviously some people will never give theirs up, no matter how the facts prove them wrong.

Political Provocation Not Welcome

When a “movement” has more media appearances than members, do we notice something amiss? When a group claiming to favor prayer calls for dismantling a place of worship, do we smell smoke? And when leaders of an organization demand “Ahavat Yisrael” and then express outright revulsion for all who oppose their agenda, do we finally penetrate the veneer?

This is the tragic saga of the “Women of the Wall,” which portrays itself worldwide as advocating for “women’s rights,” but in Israel is known primarily for dishonoring a Holy Site with political circus – and sowing offense and discord.

They claim to speak for women, but disparage their spirituality. Chair Anat Hoffman referred to traditional prayers at the Wall as “men-only,” discarding those of millions of women annually. Founding member Phyllis Chesler asserted that recognition of their group will “acknowledge women as spiritual and religious beings, capable of non-coerced autonomous, independent, and halachic prayer.” She imagines that traditional women, “forced to obey ultra-misogynist views,” are lacking in all of the above.

But founding and current member Prof. Shulamit Magnus takes the crown. She claims that only women ignorant of Judaism oppose them, and having invented this fact, then declares that it “speaks volumes about the subjugated place of women in [traditional] society, and about the male structures that construct and control that society with an iron hand.” She describes traditional Judaism as “archaic, alien and repulsive.”

With the exception of their own monthly pilgrimages, the leadership doesn’t seem to find praying at the Wall all that momentous, either. As a leader of the Reform movement in Israel, Hoffman recently proposed dismantling the place of worship in favor of a “national monument” on a daily basis. Reform Rabbis in Israel declared in 1999 that “one should not consider the Western Wall as possessing any sanctity.” Why, then, the brouhaha?

Last week, Anat Hoffman confronted a Knesset Committee wearing a Tallit, and a Likud MK had a moment of comprehension. “This is not an Halachic argument,” he said. “It is about hegemony. They are trying to take over.” Hoffman made this explicit in an interview with the BBC: she wants to fragment Judaism in the Jewish state, and is using a place of worship for political theater.

In “secular” Tel Aviv there are over 550 traditional (what Americans might call “Orthodox”) synagogues with daily prayers, and one Reform Temple open only on Shabbat. The movement has scant footing in Israel, and Hoffman hopes to use this as a wedge issue to shore up support. Sadly, she seems to care little for the alienation she causes among Jews who needlessly fear their rights might be ignored in the Jewish state.

After all of the tumult and press coverage, and despite a board and staff of ten, only around 50 people go to the Wall itself on a monthly basis. Most women respect the sanctity and tradition practiced at the Wall for millennia, and are not interested in offending others in a place of worship.

Recently some of the heretofore silent majority launched a new group, striving to preserve the Kotel as the one place on earth where Jews of all persuasions pray peacefully, side by side. They are the Women For the Wall, and it is they who deserve our support and admiration.

Lessons from the Talmud

The Talmud in Eruvin [47b-48a] discusses the unusual case of a lake situated between two villages, such that each end of the lake is within the Sabbath limits of one or the other village. Because the water mixes, and thus someone who goes out and draws water might be removing water from the Sabbath limits of the other village, Rebbe Chiyah says you can’t draw water without an iron wall dividing the lake. The Talmud continues that Rebbe Yosse bar Rebbe Chanina disagrees — and laughs at Rebbe Chiyah.

The Talmud asks… why? Without focusing upon the rest of the story, and the actual reason behind the laughter, it’s interesting to note what the Talmud discounts. “Because his logic goes with a lenient view, he laughs at someone who teaches a more stringent opinion?!” The Talmud finds that inconceivable!

So you might think, as I did, that obviously the rabbis of the Talmud did not understand the blogger mindset. You know, the type of person who will make fun of anything that his shallow mind doesn’t understand? Perhaps the rabbis didn’t know such people!

But then I realized, no, of course not. The Talmud isn’t talking about your average ignoramus, but on the contrary, about one of the holy Amoraim, Rebbe Yosse bar Rebbe Chanina. Of course there are loads of people who would make fun of scholars who follow stricter opinions; the Talmud only said that that is inconceivable for a person of knowledge and intelligence.

The proof to this is Rebbe Akiva, who said about himself [Pesachim 48b] that before he went to study, if he would have encountered a Torah scholar he would have bit him “like a donkey.” His students asked, why say like a donkey, and not like a dog? He answered that a dog doesn’t break bones, meaning that the donkey’s bite is more violent.

There is another answer, though… when someone mocks scholars for their strict opinions, it’s not merely true that he shows himself to be lacking in both knowledge and intelligence. He’s also acting, like, well, a donkey…

Just saying.

The Women of the Wall and their Kotel Kontroversy

The Women of the Wall must be one of the most offensively misnamed groups in history. They don’t represent the Wall, they don’t represent the vast majority of the women who pray there, and they don’t represent sincere prayer.

As she was led off by police, their director, Lesley Sachs, was caught on video shouting out: “to all women from all denominations, there is more than one way to be a Jew!” Her actions were never about joining the others in prayer, but about disrupting them.

MK Michal Rozin said it best: “It’s not a religious issue, it’s a political issue.” Of course, it’s a religious site, and thus the first question should have been whether or not it is appropriate to stage a political protest in a place where others are accustomed to praying in peace.

This is why the proposal from Natan Sharansky, much as it is being celebrated in the press, is actually drawing a more positive reaction from Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz than from the group. According to the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Rabinowitz said that he will not oppose the plan “for the sake of unity and out of a desire to distance the Western Wall from all argument and dispute” — but meanwhile, the Women of the Wall group has announced “that it would find any solution in which the group be forced to pray separately from the main plaza unacceptable.” One side is interested in letting Orthodox Jews pray in peace. The other … wants the very opposite.

In reality, there is nothing new or revolutionary about the proposal, from Natan Sharansky, to expand the Robinson’s Arch area. That revolution, if it could ever have been called that, came a decade ago, when the Israel Supreme Court acknowledged both the right of the overwhelming majority to pray according to Orthodox norms, as well as the right of others to do as they wish — and required that a space be provided for them at Robinson’s Arch — and the Conservative movement said yes. You wouldn’t know it reading the articles today, which talk about how liberal movements are taking the bold step of accepting this amazing compromise, but there’s nothing new about it. The conservatives accepted it 10 years ago, and were complaining about fees for access three years later (and I said, at the time, that justice was with them in that complaint).

The reason why the so-called “Women of the Wall” found that solution unacceptable is because they are not trying to observe their own practices, but change Orthodox ones. Let’s be honest, their chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, has never expressed interest in any form of prayer, except when it’s interfering with those of others. While she was still a member of the Knesset (with the rabidly anti-religious Meretz party) in the early 1990’s, she stated quite clearly that “if it weren’t for the media, I would find no reason to be here.” As the executive director of IRAC, she continues to fritter away Reform Jewish dollars for causes having nothing to do with Reform Judaism. As I wrote about their “news” section a few years back, “Articles about Reform, even adding a collection of one-sided portrayals of the ‘Women of the Wall,’ are vastly outnumbered by articles about their opposition to voluntary gender separation on buses, demonstrations against Orthodox Rabbis, interference with Charedi education and unsavory comparisons between Rabbis and Imams.”

But for the record, I do see a bright side. If the Sharansky plan is actually implemented, this tremendous waste of money will provide ongoing, daily evidence of the unpopularity of liberal Jewish streams in Israel. That section of the Kotel Plaza will be used by the IDF for induction ceremonies, on Friday nights by mixed groups on tours of Israel, for Conservative Jews who can’t even fill the small current space, the occasional mixed Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah, and the Women of the Wall. And in total it will see roughly 2% of the traffic of those streaming to pray at the site of S’rid Beis Kodsheynu, l’hispallel sheyibaneh bimheyrah b’yameinu.

It’s Not About Triumphalism

Here’s a synopsis of a Jewish dialogue that’s been going on for the past several decades:

Non-Orthodox: You guys are headed for the dustbin of history. Your ossified vision of religion is dying out, while we are the future.

Orthodox: You have it all wrong. Torah observance is what keeps the Jewish people alive… And look, now the data is proving us right. You need to turn back our way.

Non-Orthodox: Sha! You’re being triumphalist.

There’s a little bit more to this nonsense than simple hypocrisy. Yes, the numbers demonstrate that the observant community was right all along. Yes, observing that growth is delightful. But the idea that we’re enjoying the downside, that the assimilation of liberal Jews is part of the excitement, is an exercise in projection. Those who previously touted the decline of Orthodoxy, or who would enjoy seeing it happen today, imagine that we enjoy the turning of the tables against them. That’s not the way it works.

David Brooks’ recent NY Times Op-Ed, “The Orthodox Surge,” was a welcome respite from a steady drumbeat of articles in the general and Jewish media depicting the Orthodox in a bad light. It was an accurate and even complimentary portrayal of what goes on in real-world, normal Orthodox communities. So I guess it’s almost predictable that the Forward now has two pieces taking Brooks to task.

Rabbi Shafran has already looked at Jane Eisner’s crass editorial. Turning the old adage on its head, Eisner evidences the belief that “if you can’t find something hateful to say about the Orthodox, you shouldn’t say anything at all.” The Orthodox believe in differences between men and women! [Newsflash, Jane: I bet readers already knew that.] There’s a lot of Orthodox poverty! [Pomegranate, described by Brooks as an “island of upscale consumerism,” hardly attracts the poor.] And what about those accusations about YU? [On which aisle of the Pomegranate market should he look for that? And, perhaps more to the point, before she defends her inane assertion that YU is an institution of “ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn,” would Eisner similarly demand that all coverage of Princeton academics, administration or even student life mention the far more common evil that Princeton itself covers up?]

More recently, Jordana Horn took her turn at being angry. Her word, not mine. And her anger is quite revealing.

Why is she angry? Because she keeps kosher, the Jewish calendar governs her life, and she isn’t Orthodox. And what disturbs her is that “pieces like Brooks’s column… make it seem as though one cannot have a meaningful, multifaceted Jewish life outside Orthodoxy.” According to her, in Brooks’ view the Orthodox “are apparently the only people he can conceive of having a need or desire to shop at a kosher supermarket.”

Of course, that’s not what Brooks encountered, or wrote, at all. What impressed Brooks is that the Orthodox are (factually, not apparently) the only people forming communities with sufficient demand to justify entire kosher supermarkets. There are two others in Brooklyn that, like Pomegranate, I hadn’t heard of five years ago and are publishing full-page color ads today. Baltimore’s Seven Mile Market moved two years ago into a former Safeway location, nearly doubling its (and, for that matter, Pomegranate’s) size. And one thing all of these places share in common: no one checks religious (or Jewish) credentials at the door. They would be delighted to see more Conservative Jews like Horn shopping there. While it is true that adherents of the Conservative movement neither demand such markets of their own, nor shop more frequently at the existing ones, that isn’t something for which Brooks, Pomegranate, or the Orthodox can be blamed.

It doesn’t take long for Horn to admit that the Orthodox aren’t really the problem — rather, Brooks’ admiration of Orthodox shopping forces her to confront a harsh reality. As she writes:

I’m already worried enough about the potential demise of my chosen Jewish path. Because it all boils down to numbers. I’ve had four kids so far, but try as I might, I can’t single-handedly repopulate non-Orthodox Judaism. I fear that when my children grow up, they will encounter a world in which they will have to choose to be Orthodox or secular, and that no other options will exist — that while Conservative and Reform Jews were busy building gorgeous edifices of synagogues, they will have neglected to build communities that ensure their survival.

What bothers Horn so much is that according to Brooks, the Orthodox feel no similar trepidation. They are not worried that the path of Torah and Mitzvos might die out in America (r”l). As she quotes from his article, “Mainstream Americans have gravitated toward one set of solutions. The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.”

I’m not sure the harried mother loading her groceries into that minivan would describe herself as “self-confident.” But Orthodox Jews believe their community will continue to grow, that the children hopping into the van will be part of the Jewish future, and kosher supermarkets will continue to pop up in response to growing demand. We’re not worried about “repopulating” Judaism.

It is this “self-confidence” perceived by Brooks that Horn finds so disturbing. She’d like Brooks to be able to find something similar in her circles, and she can’t. And instead of limiting herself to seeking improvements within her own circle, she expresses jealous anger against Brooks for highlighting the successes of others.

Instead of raging at Orthodox growth, she would be far better served by looking honestly at why Orthodoxy is growing at such a healthy rate today, especially in contrast to its failures in the early decades of the previous century. It’s not simply that her four children alone will not “repopulate non-Orthodox Judaism,” though her admission that “repopulation” is necessary is both stunning and healthy. It’s that she has no guarantee, nor even a particularly good reason to believe, that her children will prove to be part of a solution rather than further statistical evidence of the problem. While she writes about the importance of investing in a Jewish future, she can’t even bring herself to use the words “Jewish day school,” the one proven method for preserving that future. Whether you are looking for a “leaner, meaner Conservative movement” or “our cups to be full” as she would prefer, without Jewish education you have neither — and Conservative day schools are closing their doors across the country.

And this is where they will say, “Sha! You’re being triumphalist.”

The shoppers of Pomegranate do not feel confident in comparison to anybody else; they do not define their Judaism in comparison to anybody else. They are not looking over their shoulders, nor over their garden fences to look down their noses at Jordana Horn’s version of a Jewish life. They are happy to have the opportunity to raise Jewish families and see their children grow up to create Jewish families of their own. The fact that other Jews will never have that opportunity brings them no joy.

There is a reason why the Orthodox, both impoverished (perhaps as a result of paying full taxes plus day school tuition) and otherwise, are investing so much of what they have left not in “gorgeous edifices of synagogues,” but in giving Jordana Horn’s children a second shot at a real Jewish education: because every Jew is an entire world. Like the proprietors of the kosher markets, we don’t look for labels. It is not about Orthodox, liberal, American or other — it’s about the rich Jewish heritage they don’t even know they have.

Every Jew we lose is a world lost. As afraid as Horn is about the Jewish future she’d prefer to see, I am more afraid of the Jewish future of her kids. If she isn’t sending them to day school, it’s not difficult to predict where the future lies, and I hope we get to change that before it’s too late.

Triumphalist? I think it’s hard to find a triumph when you’d rather cry.

A Community of Kindness

Every once in a while, you need a reminder that what we consider normal neighborly relations — isn’t. Rabbi Adlerstein posted about Jewish Chesed after Hurricane Sandy, two months ago. But here is an example closer to home.

On Friday night, shortly after candle lighting, a family heard the smoke detector go off. Although they quickly tried to put out the fire, this proved impossible — the fire department was called, and the house probably won’t be ready for their return until the end of this week.

Only one member of the family was lightly injured. The fire department had difficulty ascertaining who the child’s mother was, and kept asking who these neighbors were who were caring for the child as if she were their own.

After a fire, the Red Cross gives money and food for a few days and little care packages, and they also pay for hotel rooms for two days while families arrange where they will stay. In this case, they didn’t show up until Saturday night. When someone asked them why, the representative explained that they knew that the community would provide the family with food and accommodations over the Sabbath, so there was no need to arrive before then, at which point the family could sign necessary paperwork and accept money as needed.

We just operate differently, and it doesn’t take a disaster on the order of Hurricane Sandy to demonstrate it.

A More Pertinent Challenge to Anonymous Voices

We’ve just been through an extensive discussion about a single offhand remark, made privately to Rabbi Adlerstein, concerning a single comment on a single website, read uncharitably, from which we then extrapolate an entire “train of thought” which, with no further evidence, we are to assume is endemic to the charedi community — and whether that Torah personality’s offhand remark should have been made publicly, and further, whether the failure to make said remark publicly reflects a fear of Gedolim to speak their minds. The best reaction to this was probably that of the writer using the moniker kman: “Maybe it’s just me, but we have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

Having just quoted someone who contributed using a moniker, I’m going to criticize the practice. There is a discussion about anonymity that is long overdue, but that one wasn’t it.

Put succinctly, I think the use of pen names has reduced the overall quality of comments and level of dialogue of this journal. This is not universally true, but I believe that if one weighs the cost and benefit, anonymous comments have done more harm than good.

A few months ago, I prevailed upon Eytan Kobre to start contributing again. He told me that the consistent negativity of the comments was, in fact, the reason why he found Cross-Currents a less than ideal outlet for his thoughts. He didn’t want to close the door on comments, as Rabbi Shafran does, or completely ignore them like Rabbi Rosenblum. So the appropriate way to avoid “snarky” comments was not to post at all.

I encouraged him to try an alternative: to post, but with the condition that any comments not be anonymous. And lo and behold, a productive discussion ensued.

Actually, that’s not quite true. One of our moderators didn’t get the memo, and allowed through a pair of anonymous comments — and Eytan noted that he’d gotten snarky comments again. But when those two comments were “unapproved,” all was well. There was a perfect correlation between anonymous and obnoxious; get rid of one, and no further efforts were required to rid ourselves of the other.

Something similar happened with one of my own posts. I received a brief, disrespectful, snarky comment that said obviously I feel X… when, had the poor fellow read the previous comments, he’d have seen me clearly state the opposite. And from the real email address accompanying the fake name, the author was a medical doctor, who’d clearly have been embarrassed to have his name and reputation associated with an obvious lack of reading comprehension. Rather than waste 15 minutes explaining that the sun rises in the east, I trashed the comment. The same “contribution” that reflected insufficient grasp of the material carried with it all the “snark” in the comment thread when it left.

Coincidentally (though of course, nothing is coincidence), shortly after composing my initial draft of this post, I received the latest issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, containing an article about the Daily Princetonian‘s debate about this very subject. University President Shirley Tilghman wrote the following in a letter to the editor:

Anonymity invites candor, to be sure, but it also invites thoughtlessness, not to mention malice and spite. In an academic community like ours, anonymous comments strike me as entirely out of place. The Honor Code demands that students ‘own their words’ in their academic work.

The counterargument expressed by the graduating former editor-in-chief (besides the inappropriate assertion that Tilghman’s letter was an “attempt to limit the paper’s freedom”) pointed out that professors may risk their jobs by commenting, alumni “have careers and public images that they might not want tied to their opinions on the University,” and students “know every person involved in most of the paper’s articles.” But a Professor (of Journalism) expressed distate with the “bullying and the crudeness and the trolls,” while acknowledging that anonymity helps in some contexts.

Note that it was the students who advocated for (and, it being the student paper, ultimately decided in favor of) retaining anonymous comments, while the more mature voices were more troubled by the negative effects. Just saying. But it is possible to be more discerning, because anonymous comments fall into perhaps three general categories, and it’s usually not difficult to distinguish between them:

Sometimes a person is sharing a personal story which they do not wish to share under their own name. There is an autobiographical serial right now in Ami Magazine from someone who survived a brain tumor, to cite one example. He undoubtedly does not wish to be defined by his illness, rather than as a Rebbe and social worker. Similarly, people often share stories of kindness done to them, but don’t want to be identified as the recipients. This is all understandable and welcome.

A second category comprises those who want to offer an opinion, but don’t want that opinion to affect them professionally — similar to the professors and alumni commenting to “The Prince.” We have, by this time, received requests from former commenters who, having moved into the professional world, no longer want their professional reputation colored by their youthful opinions. I think this is similarly understandable.

It is the third category that is insidious and harmful. These are the armchair critics, those who wish not merely to state their own opinion, but to criticize others, yet to do so from behind an anonymous pen name. As I said in a comment several days ago, anonymity shields these writers from self-reflection, humility, and careful judgment.

It also permits them to engage in behavior which is, in a word, impermissible. We have something much stronger than Princeton’s Honor Code that must govern how we speak and write, and how we sign our names makes no difference. In just a few more decades, no longer than a century for almost all writers, we will have to answer for pain and embarrassment caused to others. Anonymity will be no excuse, and even worse, the anonymous writer might be unwilling to shed that anonymity in order to beg forgiveness in this lifetime. Halbonas Panim is akin to murder, and anonymity is all too often an accessory to the crime.

As a (named) commenter said recently, explaining why he sometimes will comment anonymously, “I find I have to worry a lot less about my language choice, whether someone will be offended.” That, of course, is exactly the point. You should be thinking about the tenor of your words, of whether you are, in fact, being offensive. Disagreement is fine, but civility is the overriding issue, and the anonymous writer seems vastly more likely to transgress the bounds of civil discourse (and halacha).

This leads me, at least for my own posts, to react to anonymous comments based upon content. If you want to share a personal story anonymously, that’s fine. And if you want to share an idea, a thought, a question, that’s probably fine as well. But if someone criticizes another opinion, a group of Jews, Gedolim, etc., much less belittles another writer or commenter, then that’s using anonymity to “troll,” shielded from the repercussions of whatever nonsense the commenter might happen to spew… and we can strive for better than that. To those who wish to do so, I have but two words of advice: don’t bother. Those are the “contributions” for which the “trash” moderation option was designed, and I believe the overall effect will benefit us if we use it more, not less.

The Cartel Has Been Broken

in retrospect, the phenomenon of Internet-trained Rabbis serving in Conservative and Reform congregations was bound to happen.

For decades, the liberal movements have tightly managed their Rabbinic placements. The size of each class at HUC or JTS (plus Ziegler in LA) is limited, and each years’ graduates band together as an informal cartel, setting acceptable starting salaries for congregations of different sizes. While this has made it difficult or impossible for smaller congregations to afford a Rabbi, it has also ensured that the Rabbis are able to quickly repay the roughly $100,000 they spent for five years of training — and make quite a decent living from then on.

I recall over a decade ago that there was some controversy when new, “non-denominational” Rabbinic schools were founded. But now, these “non-movement” schools constitute a movement of their own, churning out new rabbis at an impressive rate, and some of those rabbis are, says the Forward, claiming Conservative and Reform pulpits. All you have to do is commit two or three hours a week (and $8000), and write a 2000 word paper at the end on “any Jewish topic” to prove you’ve learned something, and that’s it, you’re ready to be called Rabbi.

Of course, what I find most intriguing about this article is the opening line: “Rabbi Eli Kavon’s colleagues don’t consider him a Rabbi.” All of a sudden, the liberal movements claim to have a standard! For over 200 years, they have insisted that their clergy should be recognized by Orthodox Rabbis as valid equals, despite the Orthodox carping about their piddling “standards” — items such as knowledge of Talmud and Jewish Law, or the belief that things like the Exodus actually took place. But now that the poor fellow who invested $100,000 in his JTS diploma can be replaced by a, wait for it, “nontraditional” Rabbi from Rabbinical Seminary International, Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, or even Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk — well now, that can’t be tolerated.

All of which begs the question: by what criteria are these graduates ineligible to be recognized, or to join a board of rabbis? Having long since declared that individual autonomy is the supreme value of Reform Judaism, how are they able to declare these individuals pasul?

The fallacy inherent in the liberal argument against these rabbis is obvious. As Irving Pomerantz, a member of the board of the synagogue that hired Eli Kavon, put it, “He may know Talmud, I don’t know. We don’t have Talmud questions.” Kavon’s sermons are, according to Pomerantz, the best he has heard, and apparently he does a good job teaching the Torah portion.

The problem is that the Reform movement dismissed the Talmud hundreds of years ago, the Conservative movement has, despite claims to the contrary, followed suit, and now they have no standard by which to claim that these “nontraditional” rabbis (the irony of that term is just priceless…) are not suited for the job.

Furthermore, there is little evidence to support the idea that those who invested $100,000 are truly better informed about Jewish traditions and practices than their online replacements. Just a week later, the Forward published an opinion piece from a fourth-year rabbinical student at JTS insisting that we should learn to love… Chrismukkah. This promising young rabbinical candidate informs us that to him, the most moving spiritual moments of the year include the beginning of ma’ariv on Rosh Hashanah, the smell of latkes, and the “rum-pum-pum-pum” of “The Little Drummer Boy.” I think it’s obvious I didn’t make this up; my imagination could never have even reached for the latkes in this context.

But accompanying an appalling ignorance of the many and diverse truly inspirational moments on the Jewish calendar, we should not be surprised to learn, is a willingness to ignore what little he has learned of our history in order to create new concepts that turn that history on its head. For example, he cites the fact that the victory of Chanukah included a fight against those Jews who built a Greek gymnasium in the holy city, but then uses that element to support his claim that Chanukah “was largely about assimilating various external ritual traditions into the Jewish fold.” Anyone reading his source document (the Book of Maccabees) already knows that Chanukah celebrated the victory of those who rejected that very idea, but, “rum-pum-pum-pum,” he is that anxious to justify the “Hannukah Bush” in the modern Jewish home that he will lead those who know no better down a path to oblivion.

When this is what $100,000 and a five-year full-time investment buys you, is it any wonder that the Irving Pomerantz’s of the world will be quite happy with the lower salary demanded by the products of the $8000 online ordination?