Thursday, September 03, 2015

Five things to look forward to at the High Holidays

(1) SHUL

I know some of you hate shul and can't stand piyutim. I'm of a different mind. I like pretending to be a monk three times per year. I enjoy the poetry, the mummer of prayer, the music. A day devoted entirely to pursuits of the soul and mind, with all other obligations suspended. Perhaps the difference is that I don't pretend that I am praying for life. Instead I pretend I've joined a beloved community, and I try to groove on the all-inclusive spirit of brotherhood the pervades the sanctuary during the Days of Awe.

(2) FOOD

I know this might be inconsistent with what I just said, but im ein kemach, ein Torah. Honey cake, Canard au Miel, (duck with honey) and round challah with raisins are some of the many delights I anticipate.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Kim David

If you know exactly what God wants you to do, it's weird you've only risen to the position of county clerk in Kentucky. (via LOLGOP)

I feel bad for Kim David. Sure, she's a backwards bigot who is violating her elected oath and her professional obligations, but at the same time can't Orthodox Jews relate? We know what its like to have professional obligations that don't coincide with our religious beliefs.

Our forefathers often were told to choose between Shabbos and employment. Their forefathers were asked to earn a living without charging interest.

In the case of Shabbos, those dirty liberals saved us by convincing the industrialists that a shorter work week helped us all.. In the case of interest, the Rabbis came to the rescue by creating the heter iska. Will some similar machination save Kim David? Probably not.

Meanwhile, she should quit instead of advancing the dangerous and pernicious notion that you, in your lone and personal wisdom, hold a veto over the Supreme Court.

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Yeshiva Education

In odd confluence of events, I heard Frimet Goldberger's excellent radio piece on Lipa Smeltzer on the same day I saw this unsavory bit of spin in the New York Post, written by Eliyahu Federman and Jason Bedrick:
Activists wrongly assume that being “educated” means whatever the government says it means. But there is and always has been a legitimate diversity of views about the meaning and purpose of education, what children should learn and how best to teach them. 
Yeshivas have educational priorities that differ from mainstream society, but that doesn’t mean their students are uneducated. Most people would be impressed to hear that students were studying Aristotle and Plato in their original Greek and Virgil in his original Latin. 
Yeshiva students spend most of their day studying the ancient Jewish texts in their original Hebrew and Aramaic. And like studying law or philosophy, vigorous Talmud study develops highly analytical and critical thinking skills.
Meanwhile, Lipa is on the radio complaining to Frimet how the yeshiva he attended robbed him of an education, leaving him functionally illiterate in English and barely competent in elementary school math.

While there may "a legitimate diversity of views about the meaning and purpose of education" I think we can agree that the Hasidic schools are failing in their basic, bottom-line  obligation to provide an education; also, the comparison to Virgil and Aristotle is laughable. There's nothing impressive about a kid who can read Greek, but can't find his way through a Judy Blume book. Besides, Federman and Bedrock are lying by omission. Only MALE yeshiva students are studying the ancient Jewish texts in Hebrew and Aramaic. Girls, on the other hand,  might get a some bible stories... maybe. And the way in which boys are learning the ancient texts is primitive at best.

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Yeshaya Liebowitz is over my head

Let me complain to you about Yeshaya Liebowitz for a moment. Oh, I know he's from the biggest geniuses, and I am not, but that's exactly the problem: In my smallness, I'm having difficulty understanding one of his central ideas.

He says, if I am right, that we should do Mitzvoth for the sake of doing Mitzvoth, and that those of us who imagine that we get anything concrete from their performance, such as God's favor, are kidding ourselves. In fact, the very point of doing Mitzvoth, he says, is that we get nothing, for if we got anything we'd be doing the Mitzvoth for ourselves, and not for God.

He also says (and this is almost a quote) that when your religiosity expresses your personal values, your morals, or your conscious, the religious act you perform is an act of rebellion against God.

I can agree with him on the part about how Mitzvoth-performing can't possibly sway or influence God, but don't we always get some reward at some point, in some sense? That feeling of satisfaction is a reward, isn't it? Self-righteousness is a reward. And so is the admiration of your wife and neighbors.

And while it might be true that the performance of a religious act motivated by anything other that a no-strings-attached desire to serve the One Above is an act of idolatry, we humans aren't capable of such a thing.

If we do anything, anything at all, its because we're expecting some sort of payout. That payout might be something as inchoate as a feeling, and for the non-mentally stable even a negative or painful feeling will suffice. But the point is we humans don't get out of bed unless there's something in it for us. So how can Leibowitz be taken seriously when he demands that we do otherwise when it comes to serving God?
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Chewing the fatwa

A guest blurb by Y. Bloch  

"How dare you take me at my word? Anyone who thinks that should be arrested or institutionalized!" Rav Aviner does a spot-on Trumpression...

Should we laugh or cry? “Just like there is one prime minister and one military chief of staff, so too there can only be one Chief Rabbinate.” Except there are TWO chief rabbis...

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Gender double standards in Judaism

I think there is a real disconnect in our Jewish culture.

We reward men for (a) doing stupid things, that were (b) invented yesterday, while simultaneously discouraging women from doing things that (a) they have always done and (b) Judaism has historically considered to be both worthwhile and valuable.

What stupid, new things do men get points for? Let's start with the Uman pilgrimage. While individual voices have been raised against it, society still generally approves of men who ditch their families during the High Holidays for two days of fun with the guys in the Ukraine.

Meanwhile, woman who wish to wear tzitzis or to pray with a minyan or to create their own zimun are stigmatized. Instead of relying on the Rishonim and Achronim who either permit or encourage women to embrace such practices,  we tend to see such women as rebels and to treat them like pariahs.

I don't want to sound like a voice howling against the wind but... why? Why do we do this? Why do we commend men who take on new practices, while criticizing women who wish to follow old practices. And why do we choose to criticize these women, when other choices are available? For instance, we might just as easily choose to keep our mouths shut. For that matter, we might also choose to rely on the Talmud and the Rishonim who explicitly permit women to wear tzitzis,  or on the sages who called minyan-attendance a great segulah, or on the Achronim who encouraged women to bentch together.

It seems to me that any of these practices are on stronger halachic footing than the men's pilgrimages to Uman but, counter-intuitively, we mock the women and congratulate the men. 
Another thing. Wouldn't it be harder for men to pretend women don't exist, if women made more of an effort to, you know, be around. Maybe if women went to shul, to the extent possible, the vicious cycle of women skipping shul, thereby permitting men to build shuls that don't accommodate women, thereby causing women to skip shul, would be broken.

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One cheer for Cross Currents.

Over at Cross Currents, the one semi-sensible member of the team has initiated a mild call to arms over the matter of women being excluded from Haredi publications.

Two posts, both by R. Alderstan appeared in August. And while one post  consisted mostly of material written by someone else, and the other was sort of lazy we're still glad to see Cross Currents standing up for a good cause.

Perhaps, in the fullness of time, a good cause like this will receive as much attention, and from as many different CC team members, as various bad causes often get from CC (e.g. the OO Inquisition, or the travails of Ted Haggard)

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Monday, August 31, 2015

Woman should pray with a minyan

Pay attention to Sarah Rudolph's "Just Between Us" piece in the new Jewish Action. Its worth your notice... indeed it was the sole thing I found interesting in a spectacularly bad issue of JA.*

Read: Just Between Us: A Woman in Search of a Wall, by Sara Rudolph

Rudolph says that women should daven with a minyan when the opportunity presents itself, and no competing child-care responsibilities are present. This is an argument I've made on this blog on countless occasions. When I tackled it best, I said this:
I don't understand why pious women don't participate in weekday minyanim - especially on days like Hoshana Raba. And, slow down: I'm not talking about women with child raising obligations. I know those women are exempt. I am talking about women who have no child raising obligations. Why don't women without child raising obligations go to shul on Hoshana Raba??
I also don't understand why women (generally) will ignore a shiva house minyan. If they happen to be there, visiting someone who has been bereaved, and a minyan starts, they rarely join. Instead they'll move to the kitchen and continue talking. Why? 
The same things happens at weddings. Next time you're at one, join one of the many maariv minyanim that pop up after the chuppah, but watch how the women behave. Most will walk right on by, not even stopping to answer kaddish or kedusha, if its summertime and the minyan is saying mincha. 
Again, I know women are exempt. But so what? Why wouldn't a pious woman who has no other competing obligations want to take advantage of the many benefits of praying with a minyan? 
Why wouldn't she want to answer Kaddish, and reap the so-called segulah that comes with a loud YEHAY SHMAY RABA. And if she's at a shiva house, already, why not just join the minyan? Exempt or not, she's there already 
The problem isn't the women, by the way. The problem is a culture that has so devalued women's shul attendance that many communities would find it acceptable to have a shul with no women's section. Meanwhile, the same culture that gives breaks to women, encourages me to do all sort of things I am not required to do (daily mikva, for example.) 
So why aren't women also encouraged to do more and more? Why does the culture give women a pass on voluntary mitzvos, when it doesn't give men a pass on voluntary mishigas and narishkeit customs?
Rudolph makes it clear that she doesn't want to be counted in the minyan or to lead the minyan. She merely wants men to recognize that a woman's desire to pray with a minyan is legitimate - at least as legitimate as a man's desire to run to Uman for Rosh Hashana or to take a daily dunk in the mikva - and to provide the appropriate space and the appropriate accommodations. What's wrong with that?

* Yup, they effed up the Rav Lichtenstein memorial edition. Instead of asking Rav Aaron's talmidim to provide a set of unevenly written remembrances, Jewish Action should have commissioned a first class journalist to write an obituary that fully and coherently captured the the great scholar's legacy. 

Tweet from a Shiva house

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Friday, August 28, 2015

Trump Watch: Stupid Jewish Press Ad.

And to think, just a few weeks ago we read about how the nations will admire Jewish wisdom and understanding (Deuteronomy 4:6)

Virtually everything about this ad offends me. Let's go in order.

1) Lest we forget, Obama is also guaranteeing he's stopped Iran's nukes. Now fair-minded people can argue about which approach is more likely to work, but to suggest that Obama isn't committed to keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is just unfair. (I happen to think that Trump's approach will enrage, not mollify, the mullahs.)

2) Oh, he supports traditional marriage does he? Does that mean multiple wives? Concubines? According to the Bible all of that was "traditional." So stop with the codes. What the ad is trying to say is that Trump is against GAY MARRIAGE which is another way of saying that he's in favor of second-class citizenship for a whole class of people. As Jews, we should say no to that. First he came for the gays, etc, etc.

Also, it's kind of dumb for Jews to whine and complain about changes to civil marriage, in that we don't recognize it as binding or legitimate in any way shape or form. To us, marriage is nesuin and kedushin. Nothing else. And no one is trying to change that.

3) No, he won't. Don't be stupid. Trump is not going to overrule the whole judicial system and free someone just because.

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Nailing the YWN editorial staff for hypocrisy or failing to live up to their own standards is like shooting fish in a barrel. Nonetheless..
And now that the topic is on the table, let me say a few words about Al Sharpton. I think he's a rodeo clown, who brings only distraction, and not substance, to important conversations. And the idea that he enjoys left-wing support is a slander that must be defeated. Consider the following:

When he last ran for president,  Al Sharpton took less than 1 percent of the total votes, scoring less than 30 votes [thirty: not a misprint] in Maine and North Dakota, and ZERO [not a misprint] in Hawaii and Idaho.

He also lost the black vote in virtually every Democratic primary and caucus. As TNR told it back in 2004: "In New York, Sharpton's home state, Kerry beat him among black voters by 30 points; in California, he beat him by 49 points; in Georgia, he beat him by 51 points; in Virginia, he beat him by 52 points; and, in Maryland, he beat him by 55 points. And Kerry doesn't even have a particularly strong connection to the black community."

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Chilul Shabbos: Coming to a Street Near You


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"Overall, there are thousands of unmarried girls in their late twenties. It’s total chaos"

"Kelemen told the story of his attempt to arrange a marriage for his daughter: “When I contacted the head of a prestigious American yeshiva [an Orthodox Jewish seminary] to ask if he might have a shidduch for my daughter, he asked me ‘what level boy’ I was interested in. Unsure what he meant, I asked for clarification. ‘Top boys go for $100,000 a year, but we also have boys for $70,000 a year and even $50,000 a year.’ He said that if I was ready to make the commitment, he could begin making recommendations immediately.”
The Orthodox Union’s executive vice president, Rabbi Steven Weil, told me he believed a backlash to the increasingly outlandish dowries was brewing. “You don’t marry for money,” Weil said. “This is not our religion.”
Weil is right, of course. It is not his religion. It is his religion’s demographics."

-see more at

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

So you're a Jewish sex slave

A guest post by Y. Bloch
We all struggle with questions of identity from time to time: Who am I? Why am I here? Am I a Jewish sex slave? This handy guide will help you find the answers!
But first, let's explore some things about you.
  1. Are you a Jewish male?
If so, you have nothing to worry about. Unless you steal something and don't have the means to pay it back, in which case the court may sell you as a slave. At that point (Maimonides, Laws of Slaves 3:3):
When a servant is sold by the court, his master has the option of giving him a Canaanite maid-servant as a wife. This applies to the master who purchased him or the son who becomes his master if the master dies. He may give him a Canaanite maid-servant as a wife and compel him to engage in relations with her so that she gives birth to slaves that he conceived.
Don't worry, you don't have to raise those kids you may be compelled to have: like your slave-wife, your slave-children belong to your master. It might be awkward when you see him in shul, though.
2. Are you a Jewish female?
a) How old are you?
b) How does your father feel about you?
Here's why we need to know (ibid. ch. 4): 
A Hebrew maid-servant is a girl below the age of majority sold by her father. When she manifests signs of physical maturity after reaching twelve years of age and becomes pubescent, he does not have the right to sell her... If the father fled, died or did not have the resources to redeem her, she must work until she is released.

So, you might be a Jewish slave, but if you're in the first grade or younger, at least you'll be out to prepare for being a bat mitzva after your six years of servitude run out. Of course, your master may decide he wants to marry you. That's where the sex comes in.

The mitzva of designating a maid-servant as a wife takes precedence over the mitzva of redeeming the maid-servant. How is the mitzva of designating a maid-servant as a wife performed? The master tells the maid-servant in the presence of two witnesses: "Behold, you are consecrated to me," "You are betrothed to me," or "Behold, you are my wife." This may be done even at the conclusion of the six years of her servitude before the setting of the sun. He need not give her anything, for the first moneys were given with the intent that they could serve for the purpose of consecration.From this point onward, he must treat her as a wife, and not as a servant...
How does a master designate a maid-servant as a wife for his son? If his son is past majority and gives his father permission to designate the maid-servant as his wife, the father tells the maid-servant in the presence of two witnesses: "Behold you are consecrated to my son."
So, your master's son does have a say. You, not so much. But at least you won't be a slave anymore!
3. Are you a non-Jewish male?
Then we won't even bring up sex, because masters are presumed to be male, and we don't even want to talk about that. But congratulations on being alive! Had you been captured in battle as a) an adult or b) one of the nations we really don't like, you wouldn't have made it this far.
4. Are you a non-Jewish female?
Hey, it's all cool, assuming you're not from one of the no-no nations. Oh, and you might be "married" off to a Hebrew slave, see above. Oh, and one more thing, as per this week's Torah portion (Deut. 21:10-14).
From time to time, you men will serve as soldiers and go off to war. The Lord your God will help you defeat your enemies, and you will take many prisoners.  One of these prisoners may be a beautiful woman, and you may want to marry her. But first you must bring her into your home, and have her shave her head, cut her nails, get rid of her foreign clothes, and start wearing Israelite clothes. She will mourn a month for her father and mother, then you can marry her. Later on, if you are not happy with the woman, you can divorce her, and she can go free. But you have slept with her as your wife, so you cannot sell her as a slave or make her into your own slave.
See, sex yes, slave no. Best-case scenario, you live happily ever after with your one-time battlefield rapist. (Unless he's a priest, in which case rape yes, marriage never.) Or maybe he rejects you, but then he can't keep you as a slave or sell you. So that's good, right? You can walk free and clear... bound by the Noahide covenant (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 8:7):
Her captor must be patient with her for twelve months if she refuses to convert. If she still refuses after this interval has passed, she must agree to accept the seven universal laws commanded to Noah's descendants and then, she is set free. Her status is the same as all other resident aliens. Her captor may not marry her, for it is forbidden to marry a woman who has not converted.
Okay, you can't refuse him, but you can refuse his faith... just as long as you don't keep your own (ibid. 9):
A beautiful captive who does not desire to abandon idol worship after twelve months should be executed. Similarly, a treaty cannot be made with a city which desires to accept a peaceful settlement until they deny idol worship, destroy their places of worship, and accept the seven universal laws commanded Noah's descendants. For every non-Jew who does not accept these commandments must be executed if he is under our undisputed authority.
You feel better now, right?
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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Adorable Abominations

A guest post by Y. Bloch
You've heard of the Ten Commandments, but what about the Nine Abominations?
The former we read three weeks ago, while the latter appear in this weekend's Torah portion (Deut. 18:9-12):
When you come into the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone that passes his son or his daughter through the fire, one that uses divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. For whosoever does these things is an abomination unto the LORD; and because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you.
That is the popular translation, at least, for the term used here: toeva.
However, this rendering is highly misleading, just as "Commandment" is a poor translation for an entry in the Decalogue (the term in Hebrew is not mitzva, but davar, a statement, utterance or thing).
See, Cecil B. DeMille should have used this title.
See, Cecil B. DeMille should have used this title.
You see, abomination etymologically means to regard as an ill omen, and divining by omens is on this very list of toevot! Colloquially, it is used to described something which is morally reprehensible, but that hardly fits the term toeva as it is used in the Torah.
It first appears in Genesis and Exodus as a way of describing the cultural differences between Egyptians and Hebrews. "The toeva of Egypt" is used to describe breaking bread with Hebrews, the profession of shepherding (although Egypt itself has vast flocks) and the Hebrew sacrificial rites. Explaining the last of these (Exod. 8:22), Rabbi S.R. Hirsch writes:
Perhaps this is only a diplomatic term, showing consideration for Pharaoh, denoting what the Egyptians regard more than anything.
Wait, toeva is a term of respect? Shocking as it may seem, Rashi says it nearly a millennium before Hirsch, in his comments on next week's portion (Deut. 22:9), as he tries to define kadosh, a term paradoxically used for both sanctification and contamination.
To anything man regards as toeva, either in a positive sense, e.g., something holy, or in a negative sense, e.g., something forbidden, the term kadosh applies.
It seems that we have to go to the South Seas to find an adequate translation for toeva, namely "taboo." The Torah is listing practices which are off-limits for the Israelites. Similarly, when the Torah says in the previous portion "Do not eat any toeva" (Deut. 14:3), it is not calling every non-kosher creature--99% of God's creation--an abomination. Jacob (Gen. 49) compares many of his sons to certain animals, all of which but one are non-kosher; Judah b. Tema (Mishna, Avot 5:20) charges every child of God to emulate certain animals, all of which but one are non-kosher. It is the eating which is forbidden, not their very existence.
However, not all taboos are created equal. A few lines before the prohibition of eating any toeva, the Torah cautions (12:31): "You shall not do so unto the LORD thy God; for every toeva to the LORD, which He hates, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods."
God hates this toeva--so are other abominations adorable? No, but not all cultural taboos are created equal. That is why "anyone that passes his son or his daughter through the fire" is #1 on our list--it is not the first among equals, but inherently different.
In fact, this is the one thing on which Leviticus and Deuteronomy agree. Like Deut. 18, Lev. 18 has a list of "these toevot"--not nine, but eighteen; not sacerdotal, but sexual. There is just one exception--the worship of Moloch: "And you shall not give your seed to pass through for Moloch, and you shall not profane the name of your God; I am the LORD" (v. 21). What the children pass through, as Nahmanides explains, is fire. It is the same as the prohibition in Deuteronomy.
When we get to Lev. 20, which describes the penalties for these acts, there is a clear distinction made for Moloch. All the other offenses have death penalties, but they are virtually inapplicable by human hands, either because the divine court has the responsibility or because these sorts of things do not happen in front of witnesses giving legal warning. But Moloch is a special case, as there is a specific charge on "the people of the land" to bring him to justice: "he shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones... And if the people of the land do at all hide their eyes from that man, when he gives of his seed unto Moloch, and put him not to death; then I will set My face against that man, and against his family..." The Talmud (Shevuot 39a) famously notes:
R. Simeon said: If he sinned, what sin did his family commit? But this shows you that there is not a family containing a tax-collector, in which they are not all tax-collectors; or containing a robber, in which they are not all robbers; because they protect him!
When children are being sacrificed, when infants are being burned in the name of God, a moral choice must be made. Is one part of "his family," those who justify his actions, even in the slightest, by hurling terms of hate; or is one part of "the people of the land" who demands justice? This is a fateful decision, for as Rabban Gamaliel explains, pursuing justice and giving no quarter to such outrages is the prerequisite for living here (Sifra ad loc.): "'The people of the land'--the people who are destined to inherit the land by enforcing these very matters."

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

BREAKING: Transactional sex doesn't lead to excellent conversations

Started when someone tweeted that she'd written an article that all men in the universe needed to read. Being a man I hopped right over. Found that it was a rant about how all men suck at conversation and what we need to do is be better at it. Ok!

Via Twitter I told the author her piece evidenced self-righteousness and immaturity and that instead of telling all men that they sucked maybe she should meet some new men.

She replied as follows and I'm still trying to get my mouth to stop hanging open.

Who could have possibly guessed that men who are purchasing sex might not be interested in having deep and penetrating conversations with their hookers. A shocker, right?

Needless to say a cute little Twitter horde of about 5 people is all on my case for having suggested that unfair generalizations are, you know, unfair. Walking liberal stereotypes alert!

(PS if any of you know how I can buy or rent a a Twitter horde of my own please pass along the deets)

Required Viewing: Ruth Taub on My Grandmother's Ravioli

I don't want you to ignore the argument or the pair of pants you'll find in the two posts that are directly beneath this one. But I do want you to find 20 minutes to watch this video.

You'll meet Ruth Taub, a nonagenarian Jewish New Yorker who still goes to work everyday and cooks her own chicken soup.

The show she appears on, My Grandmother's Ravioli, may be an insipid cooking show hosted by a reverse pedophile (is a ravioli really always a ravioli?), but Ruth is outstanding.

 Everything about the lady is perfect: Her size, her accent, her moxie.

Spare me your romantic notions of the shtetle and your tales of how the Hungarians invented American Judaism. Ruth, who was born in NY, is as real as all of them.

You'll especially love her recollections of the war years, the way she explains what matzo can do to a digestive system,  and the (way too short) tour she leads of the Lower East Side. Oh, that accent!

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