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The Simple Truth

May 27, 2016 at 1:58 pm

There is a deceptively simple Commandment in this week’s reading: “a man shall not deceive his brother” [Lev. 25:14]. This is distinct from being a false witness [Ex. 20:16], denying having another’s property [Lev. 19:11] and false judgment, “distance yourself from a lie” [Ex. 23:7]. The topic in this case is financial deception, Ona’as Mammon.

maxresdefaultA person is forbidden from overcharging, misrepresentation and deception, whether when buying or selling. This applies both to hidden defects in an object for sale, and purchasing a valuable antique at a cheap price because the seller is unaware of its true value.

I remember the first time I wanted to buy a car once I was out of school. I was told there was a person in Baltimore named (Rabbi) Meir Sher, at Sher Auto, from whom people purchased vehicles “sight unseen.”

It seemed unbelievable. The business of used cars is known for misrepresentation and deception. Look up “used car salesman” on Google and it will helpfully offer modifiers like “slick,” “shady,” and “dodgy.” You can’t even sell “used cars” anymore — you sell “certified preowned vehicles!” It’s not used, it’s just “preowned,” like a decorative piece is “preowned.” The previous owner had it in their garage and never drove it.

In Baltimore I heard about another dealer named Eli Feldman, with a company called Maven Motors. In total, we have acquired three vehicles from him over the years, and have had fewer problems with his vehicles — used — than with a brand-new minivan we bought from the showroom.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that Rabbi Sher reads his prayers slowly and exactly, or that Eli Feldman is the nephew of the Dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College. These are people who understand our religious obligations, and live those obligations.

And perhaps this explains why there are now several other successful vendors of used cars in Baltimore (e.g. CarZone Autos, which offers “Over 200 Used Cars to Choose from”, who are also observant Jews. When people know that they can trust you not to deceive them and have a good experience, the word gets around. Instead of having to use euphemisms like “certified preowned,” their honesty makes for good business!

Addressing Dishonesty

May 24, 2016 at 2:27 pm

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.]

Lessons of a Viral Video

May 23, 2016 at 11:28 pm

This article is written under the assumption that most every reader is by now familiar with a viral video which has taken the Jewish world by storm — very much against the wishes of its subjects, two Bais Yaakov students. If you are among the few who has not seen it, I know that they would prefer that you not go find it now. The secular media may not understand why these girls might not want their “15 minutes of fame,” but I admit that I’m surprised an organ like the Jewish Press would publish the video. [Notably, some upload sites, e.g. “Ellentube,” have removed it.]

But now that this video is “out there,” and has been commented upon by so many, it’s quite apparent what people have missed. This video dispels many stereotypes about the Orthodox world and is in many ways inspirational… but you won’t see that in any of the coverage.

First of all, describing the video as “illicit” (as the Forward did) is a disservice, as it implies the girls did something wrong. So too all the idle speculations about whether they’ll get suspended. Did these commenters not attend high school? Certain of my high school contemporaries were rumored to have done any number of (truly) illicit things, none of which they did in the high school hallway in the middle of the school day. I imagine that if these girls attended a school that would suspend a girl for rapping, and intended to do a rap anyways, that they wouldn’t do so with teachers around every corner. I could be wrong, but that’s my feeling.

The only thing wrong with the video was someone foolishly uploading it to social media without their permission (the story I have heard is that it traveled from one private WhatsApp group to another, and from there to Facebook), and people sharing it all over. And even that was foolish and/or wrong, but not “illicit.”

But what do we learn?

1) People in the frum (“ultra-Orthodox”) community do know what’s going on “out there,” and choose to be “in here.”

One cannot, of course, fail to notice that the girls rap and beatbox — well. Credit the Times of Israel for observing that “it goes to show you that you can’t assume that young women wearing long, dark skirts and educated in a sheltered environment don’t know what’s going on in popular mainstream culture.”

2) These girls know they may be choosing a life of financial sacrifice in order to support a husband in Kollel, raise a projected seven children and send them to day school (while, of course, paying full taxes in most states). They expect at one point to live in a two-bedroom apartment with three kids, and that’s what they look forward to doing.

To the outside observer, this may be inconceivable. The Times of Israel calls the rap “critical of widespread poverty in [the] ultra-Orthodox community” and claims that “the middle verses describing the life of young parents in the Orthodox community can be understood as being less than complimentary, if not sarcastically critical.”

Perhaps I do not share that writer’s cynicism, because the lyrics simply don’t read that way. The girls are being sarcastic and funny — “the kitchen’s so spacious, two people almost fit” — about their own projected lack of income; they’re not rebelling or criticizing the system. They hope to say on their deathbeds that they have “lived a full full life dedicated to Hashem,” and consider a small apartment simply part of the process.

3) They are focused upon the future, upon serving HaShem, and even upon the arc of their lives.

Excuse me for a moment here. Master of the Universe! Look what your children talk about for fun! Their version of fun, and play, and recreation, is rapping about a full life dedicated to You. They’re looking at their futures instead of “living for the moment.” They have a mission in mind — to build a Jewish home, to raise children, even to be “bubbies” who “wait for our grandchildren to come make noise.” What the Forward describes as a “somewhat morbid ending” is the girls thinking about their final moments on earth and what they hope to have accomplished by then. It’s phenomenal.

Two of my own daughters were just on a Shabbaton. At three in the morning, several girls were sitting around discussing one of the talks they had heard, and one girl thought to compare what she would be sitting around talking about with her friends at three o’clock in the morning, if she didn’t have the privilege to be part of the Torah community. Yes, the girls on the video may have been rapping and beatboxing, but the world hasn’t heard rapping this positive and inspirational since Matisyahu was frum.

4) They are proud to be Jewish women. They don’t have any aspiration to be men, or to take the role of men in Orthodox Jewish society. On the contrary, they delight in the prospect of being mothers and bubbies, and express the belief that their lives will be rich and fulfilling.

5) They very much value their Tzniyus (privacy), and are mortified this ever became public. Yes, they didn’t do anything wrong. Yes, everything they rapped about was commendable. But it was a rap, the kind of thing a frum person doesn’t care to be known for. It was meant only to be shared with a close circle of friends, and they simply don’t want the “fifteen minutes of fame” that those outside our community would be delighted to have. [Full disclosure: while in Ohr Somayach, a few friends and I wrote and performed “The Yeshiva Rap” on Purim one year. Thankfully this was in an earlier era, when there were no camera phones to point at us, and no YouTube to which to upload the result.]

6) People outside our community just don’t get us, at all. They don’t understand the mission the girls were rapping about, or their preference that the video not be spread around. The Forward might find the video “delightful,” but none of us can, simply because the girls never wanted it public. As I said, the Jewish Press at least should have had the good taste not to publish it.

Many of us have argued in writing that talk about Orthodox Jews not understanding the “other side” is an exercise in projection — that we have far more contact with non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews than most non-Orthodox have with us. These girls proved it, through their demonstrated familiarity with the world outside, and that world’s inability to understand them.

Speak the Truth, with Conviction

May 20, 2016 at 10:27 am

KidsTV32Today as always, our enemies are unafraid to speak lies with complete conviction. Just as their predecessors claimed as fact that Jews are disloyal, controlling and murderous, so too today. But in our day, we are afraid to speak the truth with similar conviction.

Consider the following example.

A well-meaning individual posted to Facebook a compilation derived from two separate lists: one, entitled “How to Criticize Israel without Being Anti-Semitic,” and the other, “How to Support Israel without Being Racist.”

The first of these is largely uncontroversial, if too apologetic in itself. To describe Israel as “murderous,” “inhumane” or “vicious” demonstrates a serious disconnect from reality — yet it is true that the term “bloodthirsty” is uniquely reminiscent of ancient anti-Jewish slurs.

The other, however, comes across as a desperate attempt to accuse Jews of equal racism — and must invert fact with fiction in order to do so.

For example, it instructs us: “don’t claim Palestinian children are ‘taught to hate’ or somehow less innocent than other children.” Are we to pretend, then, that children’s TV programs are not lauding the killing of Jews (not Israelis or Zionists, but Jews), that children are not interviewed expressing their desire to be murderers and “martyrs,” or that they are not paraded in the streets wearing mock suicide belts? Are we to honestly believe that 13 and 14-year-olds shot while stabbing Jewish youths and grandmothers were innocent victims of Israeli aggression?

It even tells us that “we made the desert bloom” is a racist trope, used to excuse taking land that rightfully belongs to others. Apparently, Robert F. Kennedy was a Zionist hasbara specialist, as he wrote for the Boston Post just a month before Israel declared independence, “The Arabs are most concerned about the great increase in the Jews in Palestine… The Jews point with pride to the fact that over 500,000 Arabs, in the 12 years between 1932-1944, came into Palestine to take advantage of living conditions existing in no other Arab state.”

And finally it requires, “don’t claim there is ‘no such thing’ as Palestine or Palestinians.” According to the writer, Minister Fathi Hammad of Hamas must secretly be an anti-Palestinian racist, as he declared in 2012:

Al-Aqsa and the land of Palestine represent the spearhead for Islam and for the Muslims… When we seek their help it is in order to continue to wage Jihad. We all have Arab roots, and every Palestinian, in Gaza and throughout Palestine, can prove his Arab roots — whether from Saudi Arabia, from Yemen, or anywhere. We have blood ties… Brothers, half of the Palestinians are Egyptians and the other half are Saudis. Who are the Palestinians? We have many families called Al-Masri (Egyptian)… they may be from Alexandria, from Cairo, from Dumietta… We are Arabs! We are Muslims! We are a part of you!

Zuheir Muhsein, leader of the pro-Syria faction of the PLO from 1971-1979, was yet more adamantly a racist, declaring that “Palestinian Arabs” were a fabrication, a “country” that would only exist until Israel was destroyed. He informed the Dutch Trouw newspaper in 1977:

Between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese, there are no differences. We are all part of one people, the Arab nation… Only for political reasons do we speak about our ‘Palestinian’ identity, since it is of Arab national interest to posit the existence of a ‘Palestinian people’ to oppose Zionism… Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity is only for tactical reasons… the moment we reclaim our right to all of Palestine, we will not postpone for one second the unification of Palestine and Jordan.

No. Equating lies with truth may pass for sophistication in the PC-coated halls of academia, but does nothing for justice or morality.

This is not about Israel, Zionism, or a political dispute. When confronted by strident anti-Semitism in new clothing, we must be brutal in only one respect, so very unlike our enemies: we must be brutally honest.

The Hidden Holiday

May 20, 2016 at 8:26 am

Giving-of-the-TorahIn this week’s reading, we read about the upcoming holiday of Shavuos, the time of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish Nation. But if you look in the Torah text, you won’t find that this was when G-d spoke to us at Mt. Sinai. Nowhere does it mention that this is anything other than a holiday of “Shavuos,” weeks (and a time for offering of first fruits). The name Shavuos is appropriate because we are told to count seven complete weeks following the first day of Passover, 49 days, and to celebrate this holiday on the fiftieth day. But why does the Torah not mention what the holiday is about? All it says is that after counting seven weeks following the offering of the Omer, on the second day of Pesach, there should be a holiday.

One answer is found in the fact that Shavuos does not have a set date on the calendar. Hebrew months can be either 29 or 30 days in length, depending upon testimony after seeing the New Moon. Since Shavuos occurs precisely 50 days after the beginning of Passover, during which the two months of Iyar and Sivan begin, the holiday could fall anywhere between the 5th and 7th of Sivan (until the calendar was set by the second Hillel).

This is because Shavuos is not about a particular date, but recalls the culmination of a process that was set in motion with the Exodus from Egypt celebrated on Pesach. The Nation of Israel ascended and purified itself for seven weeks, and was then ready to receive the Torah.

Although we say in the Haggadah that had HaShem only done a few of the great things that he did for us, “Dayyeinu,” it would have been enough, we know that the purpose of bringing us out from Egypt was to be His Nation and to follow His Torah. When the Torah describes Shavuos for the second time in Deuteronomy, it says “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall guard and do these statutes” [Dev. 16:12], and Rashi comments: “It is on this condition that I redeemed you, that you shall guard and do these statutes.” Thus the process of redemption from Egypt and the giving of the Torah are directly connected, and all part of the same celebration.

The Aruch HaShulchan gives another answer, mentioned by Rabbi Yehudah Prero in his Yomtov class. We mention specific things on Pesach and Sukkos because they happened at specific times — the Exodus from Egypt, and the protection of Israel in Clouds of Glory.

The Torah, however, is given to us anew every day. And every day it is incumbent upon us to thank and bless G-d for giving it to us. It did not only happen once; G-d continued to give Torah to Moshe throughout the 40 years in the desert, and continued to teach the Prophets and even more recently through Divine Inspiration. The giving of the Torah is an ongoing process, not limited to one day on the calendar.

The Torah is something we must celebrate every day!

A Time for New Beginnings

April 7, 2016 at 6:50 pm

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!

Political Posturing at the Western Wall

March 30, 2016 at 2:50 pm

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

Charlie Kalech is upset. Kalech is the Internet entrepreneur who broke Israeli law last year on behalf of the Women of the Wall (WoW), taking a Torah scroll from the men’s section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Those scrolls may not be removed by law, respecting traditional Jewish practice. Kalech broke through the divider between men and women to give WoW a Torah scroll, and he was detained for his trouble. Now he feels betrayed — because WoW announced plans to hold a “birkat kohanot” this Passover, an imitation “priestly blessing” by and for women.

Large crowds come to the Western Wall twice each year for birkat kohanim, the Jewish priestly blessing. The blessing itself is hardly extraordinary — kohanim in Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogues perform it on each holiday in the Diaspora; Sephardim do it daily, as do all traditional synagogues in Israel. The special event at the Western Wall, however, held during the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot, began less than 50 years ago.

It was initiated by the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gefner of blessed memory, based on an 800-year-old teaching that when 300 kohanim deliver their blessing together, it is a sign that the Holy Temple will soon be rebuilt. This is why nearly 100,000 Jews now come to receive the priestly blessing from hundreds of kohanim. There is no mandate in Jewish law for this service or for conducting it at the Western Wall, and no reason besides simple convenience to do it specifically during the holidays. Yet this is what WoW aims to mimic.

Kalech is agitated because Israel’s Conservative Jewish movement does not approve of women performing this ceremony, and therefore WoW’s “birkat kohanot” will not be “inclusive.” In actuality, this particular idea is equally offensive to every denomination.

There is, of course, no way to reconcile“birkat kohanot” with traditional Judaism, which defines kohanim as male descendants of Aharon, the original high priest. But the Reform movement also rejects birkat kohanim when conducted by anyone. They point out that priestly status itself is not egalitarian: it separates the kohanim from other Jews.

So WoW plans to show preference to daughters of kohanim over other women in a way unsupported by any version of Judaism, doing a “Jewish” ritual supported by no version of Jewish ritual, in imitation of a ceremony that aims to restore Judaism’s doubly undemocratic Holy Temple. And it claims to be doing all this in the name of egalitarianism.

If that reads like self-parody, so does Kalech’s complaint. He decries WoW for “blatant disregard for respect of different streams of Judaism,” and declares that the group has been “usurped by those who disregard halachic (Jewish legal) observance for their own political agenda.” Apparently he did not recognize this last year, although their “birkat kohanot” is no more or less religious, and conversely no more or less political, than their use of a Torah scroll. Kalech is absolutely right, save for his use of the word “usurped.”

The correct term is “founded.” From its inception, the Women of the Wall have demonstrated “blatant disregard for respect of different streams of Judaism.” Their behavior towards those praying at the Western Wall belies their claim to merely wish to pray in their own fashion and their own style.

One of their most active members uncomfortably admitted that her WoW colleagues consciously deviate from any normal style of prayer. On the contrary, she wrote, “they may not pray every morning at all. Some women pray/sing at the top of their lung [sic] in an operatic voice. I don’t think they would do that at home or in their local beit knesset (synagogue).” Another WoW member stated openly that she doesn’t even know how to pray, and that she came to “choose a potential victim to argue with” from among the traditional women there for prayers.

All of this is relatively obvious to anyone who has witnessed their behavior. Besides the aforementioned singing “at the top of their lungs,” they have 10 women blow shofar in unison before Rosh Hashanah, wave their prayer books overhead, and in general do as much as possible to attract attention. Although the new “Ezrat Yisrael” egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall is sufficient for a group many times WoW’s size, it sits empty — WoW comes only to where traditional women are praying, and many of its members declare that they will accept no alternative.

This conduct reflects the expressed belief of WoW leaders that change must be forced upon other women. Bonna Haberman claims that WoW “catalyzes engagement in healthy democracy” by ensuring that “ultra-Orthodox” women are “aroused by the subversive possibility of women’s autonomous public prayer.” Anat Hoffman says that WoW’s presence in the women’s section is about “bringing about change in the Orthodox world,” while Susan Aranoff and the late Rivka Haut wrote that WoW will “shock” traditional women and “change their world view.” WoW’s agenda is politics, not prayer.

Perhaps it was possible until now to ignore these statements, and credibly believe that WoW simply wished to conduct their own services. But only an alternate agenda demands that they continually push the envelope — by, for example, inventing an entirely new “Jewish” practice. It is simple political theater, busing in women to ape Orthodox men, with a performance as foreign to atraditional movements as to the most ardent traditionalist.

Perhaps WoW has finally taken things one step too far. Perhaps the media will finally ask why a group claiming to simply wish to pray “in its own fashion” keeps making its “fashion” more and more extreme. Perhaps people will wonder about a purported spiritual need for “birkat kohanot” found nowhere else in the Jewish world.

Even previous supporters of WoW must be discomfited, as Charlie Kalech is, now that WoW’s true agenda is manifest and undeniable: forcing feminism upon women who simply wish to pray peacefully, in their traditional fashion, at what they regard to be the holiest place for their prayers. The Western Wall is a religious site, and not the venue for WoW’s feminist politics.