Addressing Dishonesty

I must admit, I’m disappointed. [Even more so with the response… see update at bottom.]

When Rabbi Adlerstein and I started Cross-Currents, I used to read various critical responses to my essays on several blogs. It was not long, though, before I realized that to read them was foolish — there are some bloggers who will quite reliably insist that the sun rises in the west simply because an observant Rabbi has said otherwise. [This is the same reason Rabbi Avi Shafran declines to publish comments to his essays.] Since then, people have occasionally written to ask why I offered no response to various online critiques and rebuttals, and “a waste of time” has been my inevitable answer.

shutterstock_220973980.0There are some, though, of whom you expect more. And last night, someone asked me to look at a post by a moderately well-known writer and blogger. You’ll all know who he is, but I’m not going to link to the post for a different (yet similar) reason than I didn’t link to the viral video of yesterday — I hope he’ll regret posting it, because he should, even if he doesn’t yet.

This is personally disappointing because we used to be friends, and I persisted in believing that we were. On one of his early trips to Baltimore to talk about zoology and Torah, he stayed in our house. His best line was when my wife said that “bats aren’t bugs,” and he immediately recognized the source: “I am expert on two things. Zoology, and Calvin and Hobbes.”

Even after his books were condemned by Gedolim, he remained a client — our work for other Jewish organizations led to doing commercial web hosting, and although I have sold my interest, I believe he’s still using that service. So whether or not I agreed with him, we were hosting his rejection of the ban. This remained true even after I was asked by Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, to review Rav Meiselman’s book, “Torah, Chazal and Science,” for the journal Dialogue.

Now although Rav Meiselman doesn’t name names, it was obvious to whom he was referring when he wrote in his preface that:

A spate of books and articles and a nonstop discourse in the blogosphere have attempted to introduce a radical new theology and proclaim it compatible with classic Jewish belief. Most of this literature has been sophomoric at best. In general it has not been written by people trained simultaneously in Torah and science, whereas the topics dealt with often involve complex issues, calling for expertise in both.

So I understand why he wasn’t too pleased with the book, and that he probably wouldn’t enjoy my favorable review. But you know, that’s how things are sometimes, and the truth is best served when we don’t involve our personal animus or emotions.

As it happens, my review included addressing criticisms found in two other reviews, both critical of Rav Meiselman’s position. One of those critical reviews was written by the person who took over publication of the banned books after they were dropped by their previous publisher, and with whom I’ve collaborated on several matters. I carefully expressed my feeling that “when a person starts off with such an obviously negative perspective, it is that much more important to base criticism upon clear errors or contradictions, and reference other, more neutral sources to support his position.”

And in that case, we apparently succeeded in avoiding personal conflict. That reviewer wrote to me that he welcomes criticisms of his writing and looks forward to future cooperation in the many important areas where we largely and/or entirely agree.

Not so, apparently, when it comes to the blogger’s opinion of my review. There is no reason for disagreements to involve falsifications or straw man arguments, of course, but what upset my friend were the personal attacks. I may indeed be a “charedi polemicist,” but in context it didn’t seem that he meant that as a compliment. And what ended up happening is that in his effort to make me look foolish, he either falsified my words or those of Rav Meiselman, or mocked the words of the Rambam — all of this in a post entitled “Adulating Dishonesty.” One is reminded of the old adage found in the Gemara about projecting one’s own defects onto others: Kol HaPosel, B’Mumo Posel, all who invalidate use their own defects to do so.

In the first paragraph, the blog asserted that Dialogue “coincidentally” has Rabbi Meiselman on the editorial board. This is incorrect, and the blogger cannot use a non-fact to imply collusion or censorship (the word “coincidentally” can only be read in context as insinuating that this was anything but coincidental). While Rabbi Meiselman was a member of the Rabbinic Board governing previous issues, and was so listed on the inside front cover of those issues, he is no longer listed — for he left the board prior to the compilation of the current issue. He had no input or control regarding any part of my submission. His former membership of the Rabbinic Board cannot serve to impugn the credibility of a review written after his departure.

The second paragraph, though, was what surprised me. I will address this in detail, so that the reader may see for him or herself. Here is the paragraph in question from the blog post (minus the last sentence, which transitions to the main sections):

Some of Rabbi Menken’s eager adulations of Rabbi Meiselman’s book are hilarious. For example, Rabbi Menken notes that an example of Chazal’s advanced knowledge of the natural world is that they presented Pi as being three, because this must have been because they knew it was an irrational number and cannot be expressed exactly!

There are no additional words related to this subject in the blog post; this quote is both complete and entirely in context. The clear implication of his words is that Chazal presented Pi as being three, and that I or Rabbi Meiselman (or both) suggested that it “must have been” that Chazal knew that Pi was an irrational number — projecting current mathematical knowledge back into the distant past in order to excuse a coarse estimate, and then using that very projection to tout Chazal’s prescience. This, of course, would be ludicrous, and an apt target for rich mockery. And that is indeed his point, to use this as an example of “hilarious” adulation.

Yet here is what I actually wrote:

The author [Rav Meiselman] cites many similar cases in which Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures. For example, the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle (pi) is an irrational number, meaning it cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers. This was only established by contemporary mathematicians in 1768, but the Rambam explains that the reason why Chazal used the approximation of 3:1 is because the actual ratio cannot be stated definitively in any case (p. 154).

Nowhere did I suggest that it “must have been” that Chazal knew that three was merely an approximation of Pi, which they knew to be an irrational number. What I wrote is that the Rambam said that this was so. And the Rambam, of course, said this many centuries before mathematicians achieved the same understanding.

And here, further, is the referenced passage from page 153-154 of Rav Meiselman’s book:

Let us begin with the example of Pi, which we referred to in the course of an earlier discussion. This number, which is both irrational and transcendental, is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It seems that one of the first definitive statements of its irrationality in recorded history is that of the Rambam in his Peirush Hamishnyos. In contemporary mathematics this fact was only established by the German mathematician Johann Heinrich Lambert in 1768.

The Rambam gives no source for his information. Scholars have presumed that he deduced it from Talmudic passages in which it is implied. In fact, the Rambam seems to say so almost explicitly. He writes that Chazal use an approximation for Pi rather than a fraction because it is irrational. This seems to imply that if Pi were rational there would be no justification for instituting a legal approximation rather than the appropriate fraction. The very fact that Chazal did so indicated to him that they knew it to be irrational.

Again, the idea that Chazal knew three to be a rough estimate for Pi, which they further knew to be an irrational number, is attributed directly to the Rambam. Rav Meiselman provides extensive footnotes throughout his book, and includes the text of the Rambam’s Pirush HaMishnayos, Eruvin 1:5, which shows the attribution to be accurate, in two notes on page 154. Note that as the Pirush was originally written in a Judeo-Arabic dialect and later translated, there are minor differences between the text of Rav Meiselman’s footnotes and the text as found in the back of Maseches Eruvin in a Vilna Sha”s. But please don’t believe my translation, you are invited to do your own of either version:

You must know that the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference is unknown, and impossible to express precisely. And this is not due to our lack of understanding… [rather] it is by its nature unknown, and cannot be fully known… but it is possible to estimate… The best estimate used by academic scholars is a ratio of one to three and 1/7… And since this will never be entirely understood except by approximation, they (Chazal) took a large number and said that anything that has three in its circumference has a diameter of one, and they relied upon this in what was required for measurements in the Torah.

If we translate his language to that used by mathematicians today, the Rambam said that Pi is an irrational number, as Rabbi Meiselman wrote — “a real number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers, i.e. as a fraction… irrational numbers, when written as decimal numbers, do not terminate, nor do they repeat.” [Pi is the paradigm used in the Wikipedia article.] It can never be fully known. Supposedly mathematicians have reached 12.1 trillion digits.

So here is why I am disappointed:

Did I say that Chazal presented Pi as being three, because “this must have been” because they knew it was an irrational number? Of course not. Did Rabbi Meiselman? Once again, of course not — and we know the blogger has Rav Meiselman’s book, because he says himself that he is “steadily working through” its contents.

Rather, it was the Rambam who said so, 600 years before modern mathematicians reached this same conclusion. In the Rambam’s time, this statement was hardly projecting “current knowledge” back onto Chazal, because even then the nature of Pi remained unknown. On the contrary, the Rambam’s statement itself is evidence that “Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures.”

So the author of the statement found so “hilarious” by the blogger is: the Rambam.

The reader of the blog post in question is led to mock the very idea that Chazal knew Pi to be an irrational number — in other words, to mock the words of the Rambam.

I cannot speculate upon whether the blogger actually read and comprehended this portion of Rabbi Meiselman’s book before erecting his straw man and leading the reader to mock a profoundly insightful statement of the Rambam. I don’t see, though, why it is relevant. Whether deliberately or through negligence, he led the reader to mock Divrei HaRambam!

What I can say is that I hope this 2000-word exercise is helpful and enlightening to some readers, and at least explains both my disappointment and why I will decline to address such things in the future. It’s clear at this point where the dishonesty lies.

[His response is yet more saddening and revealing. First, the writer posts a picture of Voldemort with a caption reading “he who must not be named.” Even some of his supporters termed his initial post attacking me “rabid,” but because I did not want to descend to his level, and condemn him while naming names, I’m apparently to be criticized for that too. It’s no surprise, really.

In his latest essay, he makes unsourced claims about Greek and other knowledge in order to portray the Rambam’s statement about Pi as a common insight: “But it was known to be irrational long before” Lambert proved it, he says.

History says otherwise. Lambert’s colleague Leonhard Euler believed that Pi was irrational, but could not arrive at a proof. It was Euler who got Lambert a position at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Later, Lambert arrived at a proof for Euler’s belief. So the blogger’s claim is simply not correct.

The Rambam, on the other hand, says categorically that it is impossible to arrive at an exact value of Pi, 600 years earlier.

And once again, the blogger does not read the Rambam. He says “Rambam surely didn’t get it from the Gemara, or he would have said so.”

I’m sorry, but this is simply breathtaking. I know that he has no formal training in any scientific field, but I did think he possessed a yeshiva-level familiarity with Jewish sources. Yet everyone at that level knows that the Rambam in particular was unlikely to provide source references, even in Halachic areas. This is true even in the Mishnah Torah, and all the more so his Pirush HaMishnayos. No one who has read even a few Perakim of Rambam could support this blustering assertion.

But furthermore, the Rambam quite clearly states that Chazal knew that Pi was irrational, independent of the question of the Rambam’s source for this information — although, once he tells you that Chazal knew it, there is no longer much of a question. He says: “and since this will never be entirely understood except by approximation, they (Chazal) took a large number.”

In order to avoid this, he offers another demonstration of his penchant for straw man arguments:

Rambam says that Chazal knew that Pi was irrational, and therefore used an approximation. This is a reasonable position. Yet Rambam does NOT say, however, that the fact of Chazal using three proves that they knew it to be irrational.

That is correct, and no one said otherwise. The Rambam says that Chazal knew it to be irrational and therefore used three. That is what Rav Meiselman wrote, and what I wrote.

Understand that Chazal were not afraid of fractions. In order to indicate the length of lunar months, an hour is divided into 1080 portions, because a lunar month is 29 days and 12 + 793/1080 hours. Note that 792/1080 is 11/15 — but Chazal needed greater precision!

It is as the Rambam says, and as Rav Meiselman understands him: in this particular case, there is no precise value. No matter what estimate one uses for Pi, it will remain an estimate. Anyone with a piece of string can tell that Pi isn’t 3 — on the contrary, had Chazal used a more precise estimate such as 3 and 1/7, people like this blogger would have held it up as evidence that Chazal didn’t know math.

Yet further evidence of Chazal’s wisdom!

I think we’re done here.]

A Time for New Beginnings

newTorahOrg-300x179Our Torah reading begins this week with laws regarding purity after giving birth, after a woman brings a new life into the world. We will also celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new Jewish month. The word for month itself, Chodesh, shares the root of Chadash, new. Each month is a new beginning, an opportunity for renewal. And this month in particular, Nissan, is the first of months for Jewish holidays. It is the month in which we celebrate Passover, the time of our birth as a nation.

Passover is also an opportunity for individual renewal. Again there is an interesting parallel in Hebrew terms: the word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is a cognate of Meytzarim, confines or boundaries. Our Sages say that Passover gives us an opportunity to leave our personal meytzarim, to break out of spiritual boundaries, to ascend to heights we did not previously believe we could reach.

For Project Genesis, there is an additional reason why this is a moment of renewal and rebirth, as we celebrate the launch of the new Torah.org. Please do visit our new website, as it is truly renewed. We are still in the middle of the daunting task of importing tens of thousands of files, but we have a wonderful guide to Passover and other changes that we considered important enough to launch now.

As with the new month, with a new birth, with every Passover — this is only the beginning. Great things are yet to come!

Why Seminary Still Makes Sense

In a recent piece on Matzav.com, Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin discusses “Sending Girls to Seminaries and the Shidduch Crisis” and asks: “who are the American boys supposed to marry at 21 if all the good American 18, 19 and 20-year-old girls are away at seminary in Israel?” He writes that he will be glad to be “shlugged up,” and I will endeavor to do so. Besides belittling the Israel seminary experience for girls, in my opinion the writer appears not to understand why the Gedolim now encourage boys to begin dating at a younger age, and as a result is essentially advising girls to make the problem worse rather than better.

The writer dismisses the Israel seminary experience as a “dizzying” environment with “dreams of travel, touring, having fun, inspired lectures about all sorts of subjects, etc.” One could, of course, say similar things about yeshivos in Israel, but we obviously do not.

Rather, we point out that yishuv Eretz Yisrael, living in the Land of Israel (even for a limited time), is a great Mitzvah, that every 4 amos walked in Israel is a Mitzvah, and that avir E”Y machkim — that the very air of the land makes one wise. And, of course, spending time in Israel before marriage is conducive to the decision to return after marriage, which, as American Gedolim will be the first to say, often leads a young Kollel yungerman to greater growth in Torah.

Which of the above is not applicable to women? On the contrary, the growth in both Torah knowledge and Yiras Shamayim of most girls after a year in seminary is apparent to all. It generally has a great impact on the type of house she wishes to build and the life she wishes to lead.

In order for young couples to choose to live in Eretz Yisrael after marriage, it is the wife’s previous time there that is arguably more critical. Gedolim routinely advise young couples to find a community where the wife will be happy, so far better for her to start off without fearing Eretz Yisrael as a great unknown.

Even without all of the above, seminary in Israel is also likely to be the first time in an observant young woman’s life that she finds herself dealing with daily situations and minor crises when she cannot call her parents for help, not unless she wants to wake them at four in the morning US time — or take an intercontinental round-trip flight for a hug and her mother’s chicken soup. Can the author honestly ask how spending a full nine months living thousands of miles from mommy helps to prepare a young woman for the “hard job of marriage, running a household, often with a full-time job to cope with, as well as motherhood and child-rearing?”

And, as I said, ultimately the author’s advice could hardly be more counterproductive. He claims that girls are in seminary “to age 20 or 21” (which incorrectly presumes that they are not usually dating by the age of 19) and suggests that younger boys need to marry yet younger girls.

babyboomThat is the precise opposite of what the Gedolim are doing to solve the crisis, which is caused by our community growing at an incredible rate ka”h while boys marry significantly later than girls. As the enclosed chart demonstrates, in Lakewood alone the number of annual births grew from 2800 in 2004 to 3450 in 2008, and then to 3960 in 2012. This means an increase of roughly 5% per year. Thus if 19-year-old girls continue to typically marry 23-year-old boys, then simply b’derech hateva — according to the rules of nature — hundreds of girls will be unable to find spouses each and every year, just in Lakewood alone. This same growth, this same disparity between the number of 19-year-olds vs. 23-year-olds, is found in every Torah community.

The reason that Chasidim do not have this problem, and why Litvishe girls in E”Y (Israel) do not have this problem (at least, to not nearly the same extent), is because boys marry girls their own age. It has nothing whatsoever to do with “travels to far-off yeshivos or seminaries,” but only how long boys vs. girls wait to start dating. And given the choice between telling girls to wait until 23 and telling boys to start earlier, the Gedolim endorsed the latter option. One way or the other, telling girls to maintain the age gap by marrying even earlier is nothing but a recipe for disaster.

For all of these reasons, I sincerely hope readers will follow the approach advised by our Gedolim. Girls should continue to go to seminary, and on the contrary should delay entering Shidduchim if they want a 23-year-old boy. It is the boys who should date earlier and welcome shidduchim with girls their age and older. That, along with a lot of Tefillos, are the ways to solve this crisis.

The Conservative Movement: The Masorti Movement that Isn’t

In 1979, a group of American olim who stemmed from Conservative synagogues in the United States founded an Israeli branch of that American movement. They chose the Hebrew name “Masorti,” perhaps recalling the founding principles and intent of the Conservative movement. But by implying a substantive connection to the heritage and principles of Jewish tradition, calling Mesorah in Hebrew, the group misleads the Israeli public. In no way can the Masorti movement be described as consonant with our Jewish Mesorah.

The Conservative movement first arose in reaction to the excesses of Reform – notably the graduation dinner of the first rabbis of Reform’s Hebrew Union College, which became known as the “treife banquet” for its non-kosher culinary selections. The Conservative mission, then, was ostensibly to inspire Jews to retain Jewish observance; the reality is alarmingly different.

Reform leaders proudly state that there is no Reform standard of Jewish practice; to them, individual autonomy is paramount. The Conservatives, on the other hand, claim to follow Halacha as a binding obligation, which logically should preclude them from following Reform’s lead in most areas of Jewish practice. Yet even prior to the establishment of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886, Orthodox Rabbi JD Eisenstein observed that “both the Conservatives and the Radicals [of Reform] are moving in the same direction. The only difference between them is time.”

A scan of American Jewish history credits Rav Eisenstein with near-prophetic insight. The Conservative movement routinely delays adoption of Reform deviations from tradition for no more than a few decades – during which it unearths new “Halachic” positions which fortuitously coincide with the Reform viewpoints which it desires to emulate. As the Reform movement has moved inexorably further from the moorings of Jewish tradition, the Conservatives have followed it further out to sea.

In the 1950s, for example, the Conservatives advocated a “program for the revitalization of the Sabbath” which endorsed driving cars to synagogue on Shabbat as “an expression of loyalty to our faith.” Members of Reform Temples, of course, had been driving on Shabbat since purchasing their first automobiles.

The Reform movement began to discuss ordaining women as pulpit rabbis in 1922, yet took 50 years before actually doing so. The Conservative movement spent little more than the next decade visiting and revisiting the issue, in order to gradually reach the same foregone conclusion. In the end, it put this clearly-Halachic question to a vote by the entire faculty of JTS – including nonreligious educators in the Hebrew language and other topics – in order to ensure the motion would pass.

The Reform Hebrew Union College allowed openly homosexual rabbinical students beginning in the late 1980s, a decision affirmed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1990. JTS began to accept gay rabbinical students seventeen years later.

The Reform movement decided in 1983 to accept the child of a Jewish father as Jewish; within thirty years the debate moved from whether Reform Rabbis should officiate at intermarriages, to whether Reform Rabbis can be intermarried themselves. The Conservatives first sided with Jewish tradition: in 1986 their Committee on Jewish Law and Standards unanimously forbade holding even the reception following an intermarriage in a Conservative synagogue. Today, however, many Conservative synagogues offer both synagogue honors and voting memberships to non-Jews, even after divorce from a Jewish spouse. “Some of my most committed congregants are non-Jewish,” affirmed Rabbi Stewart Vogel, leader of Temple Aliyah in Los Angeles, California. The movement dropped its long-standing ban on interdating by United Synagogue Youth leaders in late 2014.

Though these changes may each begin in America, they reach Israel soon thereafter. Notably, Israel’s Masorti movement banned driving to shul on Shabbat in 1992 – but not because, as Conservative Rabbi J. Simcha Roth of the Masorti Halacha Committee put it, the original decision was “untenable sub specie halachah.” Rather, it was because the underlying reasons for “leniency” do not apply in Israel.

Other decisions made in America, then, naturally apply globally. One Israeli Conservative Rabbi referred to the absurdity of debating whether Israel’s Masorti movement could ordain women, once JTS was doing so. Any of those American women, he pointed out, could make Aliyah, join the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and serve on its Va’ad Halakhah.

This being the case, the Masorti desire for Israeli recognition does not mean mere acceptance of their current positions. Once Pandora’s box is opened, it cannot be easily closed. What the Masortim demand includes carte blanche acceptance of changes that it may make at any future time, while it continues to take its cues from a Reform movement that already ordains transgender rabbis.

There are two other reasons why the Masorti movement cannot be separated from the Reform. The first of these is that in Israel they act as one. The Masortim do not point to their claim of adherence to Halacha as grounds for acceptance – on the contrary, they join Reform in a united demand for Halachic standards to be vacated entirely.

And the second, even more critical point of commonality is that neither is ultimately successful at conveying Judaism to future generations. According to the Pew Survey of 2013, barely one-third of children raised in the Conservative movement remain with the movement as adults. Nearly as many switch to Reform. A similar segment switches to even more detached liberal movements, to the “Jews of no religion,” or to the growing population of those self-identifying as non-Jews. The Conservative movement, once dominant in America, now comprises merely 18% of American Jews, and only 11% of those under 30.

The Conservative movement has reached a point of no return; its members reject opportunities for deeper involvement. The Avi Chai Foundation Day School Census found that enrollment in the Conservative Solomon Schechter school system plummeted 44% in the past 15 years. Similarly, the Conservative network of Ramah summer camps attracts less than five percent of camp-age children from Conservative member families, in part because the camp, with morning prayers and frequent references to Jewish ethics, is perceived as “too religious.”

While Masorti advocates claim that official recognition in Israel would enhance overall Jewish religious observance, the numbers tell a very different story. According to a 2009 survey by the Guttman Center, two-thirds of Israeli Jews “always” or “frequently” light candles on Shabbat, avoid eating Chametz on Passover and eat only Kosher food throughout the year. The Pew Survey of 2013 found that barely one-third of Jews in the Conservative movement “always” or “usually” light Shabbat candles, and even fewer keep Kosher even within their own homes.

The situation of the Conservative movement is sufficiently grave that its congregational arm has hired a branding agency – ironically, one named “Good Omen” – in order to develop a new “position statement” for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Explaining their need, United Synagogue CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick described “a level of uncertainty about precisely where the ‘brand’ of Conservative Judaism sits in our members’ lives.”

When even the Conservative movement itself must acknowledge that it is out of touch with its American members, this is not the time for its inaptly-named Israeli branch to demand recognition of non-Halachic Judaism in Israel. One must suspect that their new activism is a method of shoring up support in their own home country. Before meddling with the millenia-old definition of Judaism still honored in the Jewish state, the movement should be called upon to demonstrate greater retention and historical continuity on its home territory.

This article was first published on Arutz-7.

Conservative Jews Deserve More than PR

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Pesach Lerner/JNS.org

Responding to a dramatic decline in membership, the Conservative movement’s congregational arm has hired the Good Omen PR agency to survey hundreds of its members and “develop a new ‘position statement’ for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.” Explaining their need, United Synagogue CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick described “a level of uncertainty about precisely where the ‘brand’ of Conservative Judaism sits in our members’ lives.” The problem, however, is far more essential than branding.

According to the Pew Survey, the once-dominant Conservative movement has lost one-third of its members in the past 25 years.1 It now comprises merely 18% of American Jews – and only 11% of those under 30. The Avi Chai Foundation Day School Census determined that Schechter school enrollment plummeted 44% in the past 15 years. Rabbi Wernick responds to these daunting numbers by saying, “we need to stop shraying our kups about everything that is bad, and get to work.” But will they do what must be done?

The movement has traveled this road before. Less than 30 years ago, there were early indications that the movement was past its heyday.2 At that time, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), Rabbinical Assembly, and United Synagogue formed a joint commission to create a statement of principles for the future of the movement – a document called “Emet Ve’Emunah.”

It was hardly the success they touted it to be; the commission was unable even to agree upon Who or what it worships. Instead it validated perceptions of G-d as divergent as the Supreme Being found in the Bible, and a vague “god” who is “not a being to whom we can point,” but simply a force “present when we look for meaning.”3 The movement discarded previous standards and offered no guidelines – it simply endorsed the disparate views of its members.

Immediately prior to the establishment of JTS in 1886, Orthodox Rabbi J.D. Eisenstein wrote that “both the Conservatives and the Radicals are moving in the same direction. The only difference between them is time.” Throughout its history, the Conservative movement has attempted to span the chasm between the commitment to tradition of Orthodoxy and the open pursuit of American liberalism found in Reform — and has proven Rabbi Eisentein’s words prophetic. As the Reform movement moved inexorably further from the moorings of Jewish tradition, the Conservative “middle” followed it further out to sea.

Consider how Conservative Judaism has progressed from mixed pews to the present day. It now endorses same-sex marriage, and although it continues to prohibit intermarriage, it dropped its ban on interdating by United Synagogue Youth leaders just last year. If formal acceptance of intermarriage is subject to ‘rebranding’, is the conclusion in doubt? By following a poll of members, the PR-driven ‘brand’ of 2016 will be still more nebulous than the ‘principles’ of 1988. This may improve short-term retention, but will only hasten the movement’s decline.

This tragedy hits home. Just over a year ago, Daniel Gordis, grandson of the Chairman of the Commission that wrote Emet Ve’Emunah, authored “Conservative Judaism: A Requiem.” He wrote poignantly of the implosion of the Conservative movement, which he termed the direct consequence of “abandoning a commitment to Jewish substance.” In order to stand for something, a religious movement cannot rely upon “interviewing hundreds of [members]” to determine its standards. On the contrary, it must make demands.

In my youth, I (YM) was inspired by Solomon Schechter students who knew how to read Hebrew prayers. But in college I quickly realized that in order to find people who took Judaism seriously, you prayed with the Orthodox. And then I visited Jerusalem. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fifty years ago, much of American Jewry believed that the Orthodox were a dying vestige. Rather than accommodating its members, Orthodoxy did the opposite — expecting full-day Jewish education for every boy and girl. Every PR firm would have derided this as ridiculous. In just the past twenty years, however, enrollment in traditional Orthodox day schools has more than doubled.

The Conservative movement could still choose Jewish substance. At its founding, the movement unabashedly professed belief in the Diety Who gave our Torah, hired some of the greatest Talmudic scholars to teach at JTS, and expected a baseline of true Halachic observance from every Jew. Effort spent upon branding could be far better spent upon increasing the educational opportunities for its members, especially the declining numbers of young adults, to help them meet this standard.

Yes, returning to such high expectations will undoubtedly inspire the Jewishly uninspired to leave — but this has happened repeatedly throughout our history. Only those who retained “Jewish substance” retained Jewish grandchildren.

It would be tragic indeed if the movement were to try to hide its decline behind a marketing blitz, rather than refocusing upon the core tenets that have made Judaism relevant for thousands of years.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis – Torah.org, and the co-Editor of Cross-Currents.com, an Orthodox on-line journal.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the Executive Vice President Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.


1 I no longer have the original source for our statement. I am aware that Steven Cohen, a respected sociologist and HUC professor, reports a smaller but still dramatic decline of 21% among “American Jewish adults who identify as Conservative and belong to a synagogue,” but that, of course, does not contradict a claim that self-identifying Conservative Jews have gone down over 33%.

Our statement is in accordance with the survey data, or could even underestimate the decline. The 1990 NJPS identified a “core Jewish population” of 5.5 million Jews, and 40.4% of households were identified as Conservative (p. 33), which would lead to an estimate of 2.23 million Conservative Jewish adults and children. The 2013 Pew Report used a somewhat different methodology to identify 6.7 million Jews, of whom 18% were identified with the Conservative movement, or 1.2 million. This would reflect a decline of over 45%, and adjusting the total population as determined in either 1990 or 2013 (as few believe the total Jewish population actually grew 20% during that 23 year interval) would only make the decline of those identifying themselves with the Conservative movement even steeper.

2 See statement of Robert Gordis, Chairman, on p. 14: “it is frequently proclaimed that Conservative Judaism is in decline.”

3 See pp. 17-18. Kassel Abelson, then President of the Rabbinical Assembly, writes on p. 6 that “we succeeded in setting forth various viewpoints in the same document without papering over our differences” and “we found ways to include multiple opinions without indicating a preference for one view over the other, since they were all legitimate points of view in Conservative Judaism.” Clearly, the very nature of G-d is among the areas where “multiple opinions” were deemed legitimate.

Like the Face of a Dog

The Mishnah at the end of Sotah talks about the Messianic era. Among the many things that it says (e.g. Chutzpah Yisgeh, that brazenness will be common), it records that “the face of the generation will be like the face of the dog.”

dog-06Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, explained the Mishnah as follows: When you take a dog out for a walk, the dog goes running ahead, and to the outside observer it might look like the dog is leading, and you are following. But what if you decide to turn right at a corner, and the dog continues on ahead? Within seconds, the dog will be out in front of you once again, running ahead in the new direction you have chosen. The dog isn’t really leading at all.

This, he explained, is what the Mishnah means when it says “the face of the generation” will be like the face of a dog. The leaders will only walk ahead of us the same way a dog does — taking us where we want to go.

R’ Yisrael never lived in a democracy, and probably knew nothing of what was going on in England, France and the United States even during his lifetime (1810-1883). Yet he described democracy accurately. We choose leaders to take us in the direction we want to go, and if we don’t like the direction in which they lead us, we elect new ones who will do it better.

Even if that is a desirable form of government under current circumstances, it’s quite certain that religion isn’t supposed to work that way.

I’m working on a longer article about this, but the Conservative movement has now clarified that the Mishnah, with R’ Yisrael’s commentary, was talking about religious leadership as well. Confronted with a dramatic decline, the movement has hired a PR firm, which has polled hundreds of member families to determine how the movement should “rebrand” itself.

It is truly the leadership that R’ Yisrael told us to expect — much as we might never have believed it.

Open Orthodoxy: An Amicable Divorce?

Are the “Open Orthodox” finally going to leave Orthodoxy behind? Several months ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss and a few of his students publicly announced their departure from the RCA, given that organization’s refusal to certify Chovevei Torah alumni as rabbis. Recent articles and statements, though, suggest that Open Orthodoxy might explicitly leave Orthodoxy itself — to the great benefit of truth and transparency.

It is worth analyzing the article of Rabbi Chaim Landau in the Baltimore Jewish Times, both in order to correct multiple false premises and endorse his conclusion.

He describes Agudath Israel as having “combined forces” with the RCA in order to “denounce, reject, and neutralize the existence of a growing Modern Orthodox trend that accepts women clergy in synagogue leadership roles.” The problem, of course, is that the Moetzes failed to so much as mention the issue of women in its declaration about Open Orthodoxy. On the contrary, as Rav Aharon Feldman put it so eloquently, “If someone is walking down the street without clothing, you don’t ask him, ‘Why aren’t you wearing tzitzis?'” The Agudah spoke of Open Orthodoxy’s departures from basic Jewish tenets, while Rabbi Landau is confusing symptoms with the underlying illness.

He similarly asserts that “the attack is aimed primarily at Rabbi Avi Weiss,” yet this, too, misses the point entirely. It seems to be a common tendency among advocates of Open Orthodoxy to claim that criticisms of their ideology are nothing more than scurrilous personal attacks. This canard does not grow fresher with age. The fact that one individual founded all of its institutions does not mean that Open Orthodoxy simply refers, as Rabbi Landau claims, “to Rabbi Weiss’ philosophy of inclusivity.” It is a movement, and its ideology — far more varied and complex than simply “inclusivity” — is shared by many other individuals.

Yet, as I said, after these multiple faulty assumptions Rabbi Landau arrives at precisely the correct conclusion: that the Open Orthodox should “completely dissociate with the right-wing Agudath Yisrael and Yeshiva University groups whose philosophy… is out of sync with the Modern Orthodoxy of Rabbis Weiss, Riskin and others… Allow a clear line to exist between themselves and the more right-wing, red-lines-in-the-ground Orthodox groups.”

Yes, yes, and yes again. Open Orthodoxy should indeed completely dissociate with the Agudah, the RCA, the Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, the Conference of European Rabbis, the Chief Rabbis of the UK and Israel, and all the other institutions and organs representing the values of Torah observance. Let it state for the record that like the Union for Traditional Judaism (formerly the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism), “Open Orthodoxy” represents the traditional wing of liberal Judaism, rather than the liberal wing of traditional Torah Judaism.

This is not just a political dispute, something with (at best) transient significance. To the contrary, this is about the nature of Judaism itself, and the Jewish identity of future generations.

Less than 200 years ago, the Torah-observant community was labeled “Orthodox” for failing to endorse the vision of the then-new Reform movement. Reform leaders both derided Orthodoxy as rejectionist and predicted its quick demise.

Orthodoxy is flourishing today, not despite its rejection of those “modern innovations,” but because of it. Orthodoxy is indeed, as Rabbi Landau so accurately said, about “red-lines-in-the-ground.” It is the Reform movement, divorced from Torah and unable to clearly articulate what beliefs and practices it mandates, that is collapsing. One who does not take a position stands for nothing at all.

In truth, the Torah-observant community never “rejected” Reform; the opposite is true. The Written and Oral Torah make affirmative statements of Jewish belief and prescribe a code of Jewish conduct; Reform rejected all of these.

The same is true today. The RCA “rejects” the desire of some to change the rules of Orthodoxy. The Agudah “rejects” a new movement that calls itself a type of Orthodoxy, yet rejects basic tenets of Judaism.

One of the leading lights of Open Orthodoxy, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, has effectively announced his departure, responding to the Agudah statement on Facebook by saying that “they put Open Orthodox rabbis together with other Jewish movements. It is an honor to be united with the full Jewish people. Some of my best friends & colleagues are Reform, Conservative, Renewal, Reconstructionist etc.” Yes — for Yanklowitz and his YCT chevrah, their colleagues are those on the non-Torah side of the bright red line.

Those who would call the Agudah or RCA divisive have it backwards for two reasons: this is not at all about Jewish unity, and it is “Open Orthodoxy” that has divided itself from Torah. Every Jew is a Jew, but it hardly follows that every philosophy espoused by Jews qualifies as Judaism. This is about the red lines Rabbi Landau mentioned — and about how Jewish survival depends upon staying within them. If the adherents of “Open Orthodoxy” have charted their course away from the moorings of Torah, that is both tragic and entirely within their rights. But integrity demands they cast off the “Orthodox” moniker as they sail to oblivion.

The Appropriate Blessing

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This week we read that Yitzchak (Isaac) wanted to bless his older son Esav, but Yaakov came instead, as advised by his mother Rivka. As a result, both sons were blessed — and though Yitzchak was deceived, he was Divinely Inspired to give each child the right blessing.

In his blessing to Yaakov, Yitzchak says “And G-d should give you from the dew of Heaven and from the fat of the land, much grain and wine” [27:28]. But he blesses Esav by saying “from the fat places of the earth shall be your dwelling” [27:39]. Why does Yitzchok say that G-d should give Yaakov “from” the fat of the land, yet ask that Esav be blessed to always live in fertile places?

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains the difference — and that the blessing of Esav is indeed greater, in a way. The word “Elokim” [G-d] refers to the Divine attribute of justice. With regards to Esav, Yitzchak asks that G-d give him blessing whether or not he is truly deserving, but asks that Yaakov receive when it is correct and just.

Yaakov is required to demonstrate a higher level of trust in G-d. Often, Divine Justice is hidden from us. We don’t see the reasons why each person is receiving what is appropriate. But Yitzchak expects Yaakov to accept the Divine Will, and not complain that G-d is being “unjust,” as it were, even if it appears unfair to human eyes. He does not have the same expectation of Esav, and thus asks that Esav have abundance at all times.

Rashi points out that King Solomon learned from this, and pronounced similar blessings when the Temple in Jerusalem was completed. With regards to Israel, he said “give to every man according to his ways, whose heart You know” [I Kings 8:39] — give according to that person’s heart, according to what You know to be true deep inside. But then Shlomo HaMelech says “concerning a stranger that… comes out of a far country for Your Name’s sake” that G-d should “do according to everything that the stranger calls upon You [to do]” [8:41, 43].

Shlomo explains why he asks that G-d fulfill everything the non-Jew asks for during his prayers: “that all the people of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, like your people Israel [do], and to know that Your name is called upon this house which I have built” [8:43].

The People of Israel interacted with G-d directly, so Shlomo HaMelech takes for granted that they will fear G-d, even if G-d gives according to that person’s heart rather than his or her words. But Shlomo knows that if an idolator makes an offering to G-d and his request goes unanswered, and then he makes an offering to an idol and what he asks for actually happens, then the idolator might reach the conclusion that the idol actually has power, power that G-d does not!

The Jewish nation is expected to trust G-d and follow Him at a “higher standard.” Both Yitzchak and Shlomo ask G-d to favor the requests of all the people of the earth — even more than He favors the prayers of His own nation (!) — in order that every person on earth comes to recognize his or her Creator.

Was Michelangelo a Philo-Semite?

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?

Ten Questions about the Gaza War

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.