Even for the Forward…

The Forward, bastion of liberalism and tireless advocate of the welfare state, has finally identified people who shouldn’t be receiving public support. But if you thought it was those lampooned by the rapper “Mr. EBT” for using their food stamps to stock up on snack food, you’d be mistaken. And if you thought the Forward’s newfound negativity was directed towards that segment of society that brought “baby mama” into the urban lexicon, well, you’d be wrong then as well.

No, although the Forward cites the question, “does the safety net help those who truly are in need, or does it shackle them to the kind of government assistance that stifles motivation and derails self-sufficiency?” — it has never indicated that it takes the latter opinion at all seriously. Until now. Because now “it’s time for the Jewish community to engage in this delicate, complicated debate,” because a substantial percentage of Jews are poor — because of “the ballooning birthrate in Orthodox families, particularly Hasidic ones.” “This,” the Forward soberly intones, and unlike that of, say, the crack user or the alcoholic, “is a poverty of choice, or perhaps more generously, a poverty of default. It is voluntary impoverishment.”

How dare the Chasidim have so many children! True, they might be preserving the Jewish future… but they won’t be wealthy! “Important though it is to support those who study Torah and Talmud, it is even more essential for the community to care for the elderly, disabled and others who are poor not out of choice, but because of unfortunate circumstances. The moral claim goes first to those who are poor involuntary, and so should our dollars.” Not only is this offensive, it is wrong from so many angles that one wonders where to begin. Are Torah scholars less worthy of Jewish communal support than scholars of romance languages and literature, jazz music, or modern dance? And is the Forward honestly claiming that when “the community” supports a poor Chasidic family, it must come at the cost of the elderly and disabled, rather than yet another multi-million dollar facelift to another Jewish-named concert hall?

Furthermore, of course, the above is predicated on a lie. The Chasidic community, at least in the US, is not the segment of the Charedim which is most likely to have men learning in Kollel for several years after marriage. On the contrary, Chassidim often work in positions which may be fine for most Americans, but which leave them stretching once they have more mouths to feed. So it’s really not about supporting “those who study Torah and Talmud” but those who are doing their best, yet believe that every child is worth “the entire world,” even if it means living in poverty.

It’s true, the Chasid with 10 children may be poor, but he is far more likely to be rich in happiness than the secular Jew on the Upper West Side with ten times the salary and one-tenth the children. And that’s not an opinion, it’s a statistic. For me, the simple and poor Chasidic fishmonger in “A Life Apart” was the exemplar of “the beauty, joy and fulfillment of a properly lived Torah life style” that Rabbi Adlerstein seeks. [You can see him at 2:20 on the video. I am sure the translation of his words made many viewers think twice.]

So this article wasn’t merely incredibly biased and offensive, it was also false. The week began quietly for the Forward, with several days of email with little evidence of the negativity towards the Orthodox (and especially Charedi) community that has been a regular drumbeat. But between this, a blog post about “Haredi Urban Legends,” and yet another story about the same Orthodox man accused of abuse, it’s clear that the lack of charedi-bashing was merely a momentary pause for air.

Oh, but there was even one more — “Orthodox Push Case of Jailed Businessman,” complete with a needless distortion in the subtitle, which reads “Mainstream Groups Split Over Campaign for Jacob Ostreicher’s Release.” In fact, there is no one who claims that Ostreicher was jailed because he is Jewish, which means that organizations like the ADL would not be involved — but this hardly means that “mainstream” groups have any doubt over the injustice done to Ostreicher or the need to free him from a notorious Bolivian jail. Apparently, the Forward could find no better way to describe a humanitarian appeal and congressional investigation — into what one FBI official called a “state-sponsored kidnapping” — than as a parochial effort with which “mainstream” Jews should not concern themselves. And to do so, they were prepared to misportray the sentiments of the head of the ADL.

So in just three days, the Forward managed to tally up four examples of needless anti-Charedi bias, complete with two articles worthy of several “Pinocchios” from the Washington Post. And the number of articles this week with positive news from a community filled with Torah and chesed, not to mention the community that is the only bright light in the dismal state of decline that is the NY Jewish community? Why, a big zero.

Bucking the Trend

This week, we read about the spies sent to look at the Land of Cana’an, who came back with a bad report — the land is filled with giants, they said, and even if we were to somehow beat them, the land consumes its inhabitants! Only two of the spies came back ready to talk about the “very, very good… land flowing with milk and honey.” Those two were Yehoshua (Joshua) from the tribe of Ephraim, and Kalev ben Yefuneh from the tribe of Yehudah (Judah).

The Torah tells us that Yehoshua’s name was really Hoshea, but Moshe added a letter Yud at the beginning of his name. He knew prophetically what was to happen, and prayed that “‘Y-h’ (G-d) should ‘yoshea’ (save) you from the plan of the spies.”
But what about Kalev? Who prayed for him?

The Talmud (Sotah 11b) points out that Kalev’s real name was, just like Hoshea’s, not the one given to us in the Torah. In I Chronicles 2 the descendants of Judah are recorded. He had five sons, the fourth of whom was Perez. Perez had two sons, Chetzron and Chamul. [Chetzron’s son Ram was the grandfather of Nachshon ben Amminadav, who “triggered” the parting of the Sea by entering the water — and Nachshon’s great-great-grandson was King David ben Yishai.]

Chetzron also had another son… named Kalev. This, the Talmud tells us, is the same person identified in the Torah as Kalev ben Yefuneh.

So if Kalev’s father’s name was Chetzron, why was he identified as Kalev ben Yefuneh in the Torah? The Talmud explains: because he was the son who “Panah” (turned away) from the plan of the spies.

Kalev had both the wisdom and fortitude to recognize when those around him were turning off the path, and to avoid following them “off the cliff.” There are times when “everyone” in society around us is doing and/or advocating for something very wrong, and it isn’t so easy to be in the minority, blindly following the old Sage (in this case, Moshe himself) who is surely leading us to destruction. May we all find the strength of Kalev to “buck the trend!”

A Moderate Life

Prior to Shavuos, our family went to a Sunday brunch celebrating the Bat Mitzvah of a cousin. At some point, I found myself in conversation with the uncle of the honoree, also a cousin and, of course, of my own generation. One of us got a text message, I believe, which turned the conversation to smartphones and the next technologies on the way. Although we’ve known each other essentially all his life (I have about five years on him), he eventually commented that he had to adjust mentally to the idea of talking about high-tech with someone looking like a yeshiva (traditional Rabbinic school) alumnus.

To those not familiar, I suppose it’s rather easy to confuse Orthodox Jews with the Amish, or the ascetics of other communities who shun technology, marriage, and other pleasures. But that is not what the Torah asks of us. As Maimonides advises us, the Torah looks for moderation in most every area.

In our reading this week, the head of each Jewish tribe brings an inaugural offering upon the completion of the Tabernacle. Each of those offerings was precisely the same. Yet the Torah, concerning which we are taught that every letter is holy and none is wasted, describes each offering in full detail, allocating the same six verses to repeat, practically word for word, what each Nasi brought on each day. Achira ben Einan of Naftali’s offering on day twelve is described with all the details of Nachshon ben Amminadav of Yehudah’s on day one. What’s the point of all that repetition?

Rabbi Shmuel Greinemann explains that it was no accident that Nesanel ben Tzuar of Yissachar chose, on the second day, to bring precisely what Nachshon ben Amminadav brought the day earlier. He knew that each of the tribes could engage in one-upmanship, compensating for and taking advantage of going later in line to bring something greater than the other Nesi’im had brought so far. Instead, Nesanel ben Tzuar chose a path designed to avoid any hint of jealousy, and to generate feelings of love and brotherhood. And every Nasi followed suit. That was what was so precious about each and every offering, warranting that it, too, be described with the same level of detail in the Torah itself as all the others.

We live at a time where keeping up with (and outdoing) our neighbors is a fine American (and even global) pastime. That is what the Torah asks us to avoid: to engage in moderation, live within our means, and encourage brotherhood rather than jealousy. And if we want to know how precious that is to G-d, we merely need to contemplate how much space He allocated in His Torah to ensuring that each Nasi was recognized for his personal contribution in this area.

I look forward to reading your comments!

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org

Peter Menkin interviews Yaakov Menken

No, no relation! Peter Menkin is an Episcopal writer, and this article appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and the Church of England Newspaper. Interesting style and all, you do learn a lot about Project Genesis via this article — so with his permission I’ve reprinted it here.

Interview: Internet Rabbi Yaakov Menken speaks about his Religious Education work with www.Torah.org

In an interview on Religious Education, Orthodox Rabbi Yaakov Menken talks of his work with the successful teaching website www.Torah.org and tells readers all about what to expect as students

by Peter Menkin

Founder and Director of www.Torah.org,
Rabbi Yaakov Menken of Baltimore, Maryland, USA

This is the second interview in three that constitute the final article-interview on Religious Education. The unique aspect of this interview has to do with the success of internet education and its use in the teaching of Torah and Jewish learning purposes, as well, of Orthodox Jewish adult education. In this interview with Religion Writer Peter Menkin, Director of www.torah.org spoke with the writer over a period of a few months, from December, 2011, through the 20th of March, 2012. Rabbi Yaakov Menken (no relation to the Religion Writer), speaks with an authority born of education, training, and experience. He shows a love of learning, and like the other three Rabbis who are part of this interview series of three about the internet learning site, with its 78,000 subscribers, Rabbi Yaakov has a warmth for the reality of the work and their experience in reaching out to both Jews and non-Jews in many parts of the world–in fact, worldwide as well as the United States. The phone conversations held from Peter Menkin’s home office in Mill Valley, California to Rabbi Yaakov’s office at www. Torah.org and his own home in Baltimore, went well.

1. Peter Menkin: There is little doubt in my mind that your work as Director, www.Torah.org is an internet success with 78,000 subscribers. In a conversation by phone, you talked some about advantages and such of internet learning—calling Torah.org a place for ongoing education (lifelong learning). To paraphrase your remark regarding continuing education –as this writer knows it as once known in California, USA — and your school purpose, continuing education is…much closer to our model, not because (the student is) going to get a credit. Lifelong education known to us as… religious study…a more fundamental obligation. It is one of the things we are expected to do. Tell us about this lifelong, fundamental obligation. Give us some about the, “Why,” and “What for…”

Continue reading “Peter Menkin interviews Yaakov Menken”

Life Beyond Internet

On Monday, Paul Miller, a Senior Editor at a “technology-focused news publication” called The Verge, announced that he was quitting the Internet for a year. He’s switched to a “dumb” phone, and has pledged to neither use the Internet nor ask others to use it for him, if he can.

His reasons for this drastic move are informative. He hopes that “leaving the internet will make me better with my time, vastly more creative, a better friend, a better son and brother… a better Paul.” He said that he was spending an average of over twelve hours each day using some sort of device with an Internet connection, not even including his smartphone.

By separating myself from the constant connectivity, I can see which aspects are truly valuable, which are distractions for me, and which parts are corrupting my very soul. What I worry is that I’m so “adept” at the internet that I’ve found ways to fill every crevice of my life with it, and I’m pretty sure the internet has invaded some places where it doesn’t belong.

This is a profound statement for a person who makes his living as a technology writer, a job that will be far more difficult without the ability to research new devices online, see what others have written, and even exchange e-mail to share ideas. His previous weekly column was entitled “The Verge at work: sync your text everywhere, never lose an idea again” — which, of course, requires the Internet.

Yet after his first day, he described the experience in glowing terms. “The moment I reached down and unplugged the ethernet cable from my computer, I felt like school was out for the summer, and the simultaneous relief and boredom that last bell brings. I stood up, and I realized that I’d been anticipating this moment for ages.” The rest of his day was relaxing — including hours spent playing local multiplayer video games with colleagues.

At home I listened to records with my roommate and the peaceful boredom continued. I found myself really engaging in the moment, asking questions and listening closely, even more than if I’d just closed my computer or locked my phone, because I knew neither of those things could demand anything of me.

What I suspect he will discover is that Day 31 isn’t nearly as enjoyable as Day 1, especially given his career. But he has clearly recognized that it takes a complete disconnect in order to avoid distractions, and that other areas of our lives suffer when buried under a flurry of text messages, interesting articles and more.

It is possible, though, to take a less extreme approach and enjoy the same benefits: a weekly disconnect. It is as if the Laws of the Sabbath, which G-d called a special gift thousands of years ago, were expressly designed for our era. Now, more than ever, we need to turn off these devices in order to tune in to what really matters.

In our world, that doesn’t mean spending hours playing video games with colleagues, but devoting that time to family, friends, and spiritual growth. You, too, can experience Day One of “Life without the Internet” — each and every week.

Published as the Project Genesis Lifeline.

The Powers That Be

This week, I cannot refer to “this week’s reading” and be universally accurate. The Torah portion read this week in Israel is “out of sync” with the rest of the world, a phenomenon that will continue for another month. This is because while Israel celebrates the holy days of the three festivals on one day each, those living outside Israel celebrate them for two. Since the last day of Passover was on Friday this year, in Israel they read Parshas Shemini on Shabbos, while outside Israel, we read the special reading for the eighth day of Passover, and will read Shemini this week.

This causes a minor inconvenience for many people. Many apps and webpages written in Israel, for instance, refer to a different Torah reading than those written outside it. This week, many who are about to travel to Israel will walk to places where they can listen to Israel’s reading in order to “catch up.”

Now of course, you can find some people today who say that we really should only have one Passover Seder. This usually comes from the same sources that claim that Ashkenazic Jews shouldn’t care about eating kitniyos (legumes, rice, etc.) on Passover anymore — and that oh, by the way, the traditionalists are so monolithic! As I have written before, we should celebrate the diversity of customs that have developed over thousands of years of Jewish history, all surrounding a common core of Torah and Rabbinic legislation designed to encourage us to come closer to G-d.

For the record, I recently saw a webpage which explained accurately that the reason why Jews outside Israel observed two days of the holidays was because the community in Babylon could not receive timely word from Jerusalem concerning which of two possible days was consecrated as the new month, because this was done only based upon eyewitness testimony before the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious court. The same page, however, also asserts that this practice “continued even after mathematical models made it possible to calculate the date of the new moon.”

This latter statement is inaccurate: the mathematical models were in Jewish hands from the time that the Torah was given, to a degree of accuracy that required NASA to replicate. That is why we can still rely upon the calendar established by Hillel Sheni (the second Rabbi Hillel), although it is nearing two millenia since his lifetime. He created a set calendar not because he had developed a mathematical model, but because he recognized that there would soon not be a Sanhedrin to receive witnesses! The festivals still carry with them the message that the Jewish people has the ability to affect the entire world, spiritually, by affecting the time when the spiritual powers encapsulated within the festivals come into the world once again.

One day soon, we should hope to see the day when everyone returns to Israel, observes one day of all holidays, and a cloudy evening might affect when they are!

Brother, Can You Share a Smile?

The blessing Jacob gives Judah concludes with the words: “his eyes will redden from wine, and his teeth white from milk.” Rabbi Yochanan says homiletically (Kesubos 111b) that you can read it as “teeth whiter than milk” — to give a smile to a friend is even greater than giving him nourishment.

When someone comes collecting charity, it is a difficult and often thankless job. Rejection can break a person’s spirits and keep him or her from continuing, no matter how important the cause. So, as it happens, a smile may be one of the most important things you can give — you can brighten that person’s spirits and enable him or her to persevere.

Closer to home, there is no one who doesn’t have a “hard day” now and then. There are great people who have tremendous internal reserves of happiness, so that no matter what, it seems like they are always happy. Even people like that need an encouraging word now and then — much less the rest of us, who sometimes just want to crawl back into bed and start over tomorrow, if not next week!

To be generous of spirit is at least as important as being generous with money — and when it comes to smiles, the more you give, the more you have!

Blogging

I decided that it was time for me to take advantage of this space to start a discussion. My posts here will be short notes of interest — in contrast to my participation in Cross-Currents, for example, as well as a brand-new blog from my Internet work.

But I thought it worth keeping the site more lively — primarily so that readers out there (does that mean you?) should feel free to comment and know that I’m reading!

First Round

I just asked those who bought through Project Genesis to email me their comments… here are a few.

I enjoyed the book very much……..I’m reading it a second time….probably a third and fourth too! So much to learn! Thank you for taking the time to write it.

B’Shalom,
Lisa

I think this book is so wonderful that I recommended it to my sister (61 yrs old) who was asking me about Kabbalah.

It is easy to read, informative and interesting. Since for me a good experience is one where I learn something new or have a little fun/enjoyment, the “Everything Torah” book fulfils both of my requirements. I couldn’t put it down once I started it, enjoyed it and learned many new things. What else could I ask for?

Sincerely

Solette

I started to read your book the day I received it and enjoyed the book. I have passed it on to my wife, who is presently reading it

Cordially,

David

Evolution

The “Cutting Room” is for sections of the manuscript that didn’t make it into the published book. The first item I published came in response to a question in the discussion forum — from a perceptive reader, Andrea, who noticed that my entry on evolution was curiously devoid of an explanation. I responded in the forum, so you can read the missing passage there.

As a footnote, you should also see Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein’s article, “Inherit an Ill Wind, and Other Musings About Science,” on Cross-Currents.