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.

Everyone Makes Mistakes

Believe it or not, this week’s message was not inspired by the fact that the Catholic Church has chosen a new Pope; it just offers a convenient contrast. As you probably know, there is, in their beliefs, a doctrine of papal infallibility. When the Pope teaches the rules, he is always right.

It is natural to assume that Judaism has something similar. This is especially true, given the Torah’s demand that we listen to the Rabbis and Judges, and not deviate “right or left” [Deut. 17:11] from what they say.

We see from this week’s reading, though, that this is definitely not the case. The Torah prescribes special atonement for when the High Priest, the King, or the Sanhedrin [Lev. 4: 13-21], the High Rabbinical Court, makes a mistake. In other words, the Torah highlights for us that it is possible for the Sanhedrin to be mistaken.

This is not about a small matter, either. The commentaries say that the mistake described here is one in which the Sanhedrin teaches that it is permitted to do something, and the Sanhedrin later realizes that the behavior is prohibited — so much so that a person committing the act deliberately would suffer the punishment of Kares, spiritual excision [the exact definition of this is disputed, but severe]. Even in matters of religious law, where the Sanhedrin’s supreme authority is undisputed — even there, they could make a mistake.

So why, then, does the Torah tell us to listen to them? They could, after all, be leading us in the wrong direction!

One answer has to do with the power of unity. Different customs and practices are wonderful, but there has to be underlying agreement on “the basics.” One of the problems with calling different Chassidic groups “sects” is that a sect is “a dissenting or schismatic religious body.” Chassidic groups may be led by different Rebbes, but they don’t rewrite the rules. The disagreements of today are disagreements about shapes of branches on individual trees within a massive, unified forest.

And there is another answer, which requires still more humility. It is all well and good to say that everyone is fallible — but who is more likely to be making a mistake? The Torah gives leadership to people who dedicate themselves completely to Torah study, to learning the Torah’s “way of thinking.” Such people are inherently less biased by the latest news reports and the wise opinions of the chattering class, as we are. We recognize that it is much less likely that they will make a mistake, and that is why we trust their guidance.

My Contribution

5008885941_83fa4b319b_oWhen it came to constructing the Tabernacle, everyone was invited to contribute as much as he wanted. Since not everyone has the same financial portfolio, it’s obvious that some people ended up giving more than others. In fact, we are told that the leaders of each tribe made a mistake. They said they would cover whatever was lacking, rather than giving immediately — and then the Bnei Yisrael gave more than was needed. This is why the leaders came at the end to bring the Shoham stones, the precious gems on the breastplate worn by the High Priest. Everything else had already been given!

In this week’s reading, we find a different plan. For the annual upkeep of the Temple, each adult male gave a 1/2 shekel coin — exactly the same amount.

There is an obvious message here: every individual has something to contribute. Every member of the Jewish people is part of a greater whole, and no one should think he or she is irrelevant.

Our teacher R’ Shlomo Katz, in his HaMa’ayan class, points to a comment of R’ Moshe Feinstein zt”l. R’ Moshe says that a person can think that he doesn’t really know much, and can’t learn like a great scholar, so it doesn’t matter if he studies or not. He can think that he’s really not a powerful or influential person, so it doesn’t matter if he goes out of his way to do a good deed.

This, says R’ Moshe, is why the opening verse [Ex. 30:11] begins, “When you raise the heads of the Children of Israel according to their numbers…” By counting them, Moshe is told, you are raising their heads. Each person is significant, and has much to contribute. Each individual is obligated to learn and do good deeds, like everyone else. Tap your potential, and you’ll find you’ve been given more than you thought!

A Giving Nation

In this week’s reading, the Jewish nation is commanded to give the materials necessary to construct the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and all the items within it. Unlike the annual contribution of a half-Shekel to the continuing operations of the Tabernacle and Temple, the amount of donations is not specified. On the contrary, it was up to the generosity of each individual.

The Medrash tells us that when G-d said to Moshe, “Let them make Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” [Ex. 25:8], Moshe thought this inconceivable. How could G-d, Who Created and fills the entire universe, “dwell” in a small building? Yet G-d said to him that He, G-d, would not even fill the Mishkan, but rest between the rods of the Aron, the Holy Ark. So the goal could be achieved, but required generous individuals to step forward.

And everyone did.

This trait of kindness and generosity was part of what set Abraham apart, and something which HaShem wanted to be still more firmly ingrained in every member of the Jewish people. Indeed we learn later, in the Torah portion of Vayakhel [36:5-7], that they brought enough, and more than enough!

There are different varieties of generosity. The commentary Osiyos D’Rebbe Akiva makes a comparison to the gold, silver and copper donated to the Tabernacle. When everything is going well and a person is generous, that is compared to gold. When a person is sick and needs G-d’s help, his donation is compared to silver. And if he only gives when the metaphorical noose is already on his neck, then it is compared to copper. Even so, every donation of every type is valuable!

One motivation, of course, is gratitude. The Jews gave in the desert not merely because the Tabernacle would glorify G-d, but also because it showed recognition of all the wonders He had done for them in taking them from Egypt. In that case, the Mitzvah is not only kindness and charity, but acknowledgment of what others have done for us!

In that vein, I cannot resist a small plug for our raffle, which, should you enter now, offers you a chance to win a Megillas Esther, as well as a grand prize of $100,000. I hope that if you enjoy the Torah provided to you by Torah.org each week, you will enter with your generous gift!

As always, we welcome your comments.

Good Shabbos!

Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org

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.

It’s Normal to Question

When the Chofetz Chaim himself, the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan, was bemoaning how people were losing their faith and attachment to Judaism, it was the Rosh Mesivta (high school principal) who helped him feel better. The principal pointed out that even back in Egypt, when the Jews still remembered their forefathers and G-d’s promise, and knew the length of the exile, they still lost hope. “But they did not listen to Moshe, because of their fallen spirits and the difficult work…” [6:9]

The Mishnah tells us that we should say a blessing when we get exceptionally good news, or exceptionally bad news. These blessings are different, and the blessing that we say is based upon how we feel right now, regardless of future effects. For example, if a river floods a field, the farmer knows that the fresh sediments and nutrients will make his crops grow better for years to come. But emotionally, he sees that his current crop is ruined – and thus he says the blessing for bad news.

How is that consistent with the rabbinic teaching that everything which G-d does is for the best? That’s also part of the Mishnah! G-d is watching out for us, taking care of us, and meeting the unique needs of each individual – every minute of every day. So how can there be such a thing as “bad news?”

The Torah also knows that there such a thing as human nature. It is normal and human to feel happy in some situations, and sad in others. It is even unhealthy for a person not to feel a variety of different emotions in different situations. It is a sign that something is wrong with the person, and that is certainly not what the Torah expects of us.

So to be faced with doubts and questions is, in fact, totally normal, especially in trying times. The key is to remember that, indeed, G-d is watching out for us, and to use that knowledge to persevere and move forward. Thus the question is not whether we have doubts, but how we face them!

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?

Finding Happiness

When Yaakov blesses Yehudah, he says that Yehudah will be “red-eyed from wine, and white-toothed from milk.” [49:12]

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan offers a homiletic interpretation of this verse. [Kesubos 111b]. He says that one who smiles graciously at his friend is even greater than one who gives him physical nourishment — a change of a vowel turns “white toothed” to “whitens his teeth,” which is “from”, or greater than, milk. One of the greatest things we can do for a person, he says, is to help him or her to be happy.

Last year I spoke about spreading happiness. But what is happiness, anyways? We think we know, but consider the following.

In our day, we are “blessed” with an industry whose sole purpose is to make us happy: entertainment. The dictionary tells us that entertainment is “something affording pleasure, diversion, or amusement,” and people clamor for the opportunity to work in an industry where their job boils down to making others happy — whether through acting, singing, professional sports, acrobatics or anything else that people will pay in order to come and be entertained.

There is also an industry whose practitioners seem chronically unable to be happy. An extraordinary number of them escape into drugs or even suicide. They are unlikely to maintain stable relationships. They often entertain themselves with unhealthy, harmful and illegal activities. And what industry is that? Why, the same one: entertainment.

You might also have thought that I was speaking of psychologists, because many of these things are true of them as well. The very therapists that people see when they are unhappy are themselves “at least as troubled as the general population.” People pay thousands of dollars for therapy to help them be happy, yet the practitioners themselves are miserable.

Does this make sense?

Yaakov said that Yehudah will be able to share happiness. I believe this is tied not merely to recognition of Yehudah’s leadership, but in the way it was expressed. When Yaakov prepared his family to descend to Egypt, he sent Yehudah on ahead “to guide the way to Goshen,” [46:28] which the Medrash explains to mean that he sent Yehudah to establish a House of Study.

Karl Marx wasn’t entirely wrong when he said that religion “is the opiate of the masses.” It does make people happier, but that happiness isn’t a drug or an escape. Recognizing that we are not alone, and rejoicing in our connection to G-d, makes us happier — but in the healthiest of ways. King David said it first: “were it not for your Torah, my consolation, I would be lost in my sorrows” [Psalms 119:92].

If a person has a true psychological issue, then indeed, a professional therapist can help. But if a person is just feeling a general malaise, then an escape into movies, books, and performances is of far less value than a visit to the House of Study. And by that, I don’t mean (only) eternal value, I mean what will be most helpful and enduring in the here and now.