Sunday, July 29, 2007

With gedolim like these. . . .

Give me the ktanim!
Seen on Arutz Sheva: Several young Israeli haredi men, yeshiva students, died of dehydration(ר''ל) while hiking during an unusual heat wave. Secular authorities advised Israelis not to hike until the heat breaks. Rav Elyashiv and Rav Shteinman, of Slifkingate infamy, did them one better. Don't hike at all during the bein hazmanim break between Tisha B'Av and Elul. God forbid Jewish boys should be strong and healthy; they might get strange ideas about going into the Army and earning a living. Why they might even meet strong and healthy girls with whom to make strong and healthy Jewish babies. Really now, who taught those yokels exercise physiology? Worse still, who taught them Torah? Hiking is a venerable Israeli tradition. God Himself instructed Avraham Avinu to travel the length and breadth of Eretz Yisrael to assert the sovereignty that God promised his descendants (Bereshit 13:17). From extensive hiking comes a love of the land, and from love of the land comes the Israeli fighting spirit. Some of my most cherished memories are from my Beit Sefer Sadeh experience in 1974, traipsing all over with Tanakh in our hands and our hearts (since duplicated by my son who slept in the very same igloos I slept in on Kfar Etzion). But for the Elyashivs and Shteinmans among us, Torah begins and ends with Ravina and Rav Ashi. Tanakh is, at best, an afterthought.

Here's my advice to those boys, gleaned from my studies and long experience as a marathon runner, doing my best running in summertime:
1. Don't hike in extremely hot weather, especially if you are not in condition.
2. Begin at dawn or before, when temperatures are relatively low. Find shelter when the sun is hottest.
3. Carry ample supplies of water and carbohydrate-rich gorp.
4. Do not hike alone. Travel in groups, or at least with a buddy and a cell phone to call for help if necessary.
5. Replace the electrolytes you lose in sweat; water is not enough. Someone in Israel must be producing a sports drink similar to Powerade.
6. Be aware of the symptoms of heat illness and watch for them in your fellow hikers. Stop to rest, rehydrate and refuel.
7. Remember that our ancestors ran down their dinner in a hot tropical climate. The human organism is superbly adapted for heat, as long as you
8. Keep yourself in shape. Get away from the books, go outside, hike and play ball not only bein hazmanim but all year. And don't be surprised if you come back with fresh insights into your learning. Increased blood and oxygen to the brain can do funny things.
Here are some pictures from my tiyulim:
Atop Giv'at Hakrav (Battle Hill), where
35 Israelis lost their lives in 1948 attempting
to relieve Kfar Etzion. I am on the right.

At Mamre, where God appeared to Avraham.
Don't let the pocket protector fool you; I was
one of the fittest hikers in the group.

Making muscles at Masada. I am in the
front row, left, holding tefilin in my right hand.
We davened in the beit knesset where the
freedom fighters davened 1900 years ago.

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That it may be well with you. . . .

We are now in the midst of reading the last charge of Moshe Rabbeinu to the Jewish people. Part of it is a repetition of the Ten Commandments with some more-or-less significant differences. I will focus on the fifth, and throw out a challenge to the medical profession.
Honor your father and your mother as Hashem your God commanded you, that your life may be lengthened and that it may be well with you, on the land that Hashem your God is giving you [if your parents tell you not to go to Israel, go anyway]. The original version, given 40 years earlier, does not include the phrase "and that it may be well with you." What happened? Everybody (except two individuals) over the age of 20 was condemned to die in the midbar (wilderness) after the sin of the meraglim, the spies that Moshe Rabbeinu sent and who came back with a demoralizing report. While there were many awesome miracles in the midbar, (see my earlier post), cancellation of the natural aging process was not one of them. Perhaps it did not take place in Egypt since the men were worked to death by the Egyptians. Now, 40 years later and on the verge of beginning to live a normal life, people were visibly getting old. We all know what that means: losing mobility, losing muscle mass and becoming physically weak, losing the ability to feed oneself, dress oneself, toilet oneself, losing, losing, losing. . . . Indeed, these are precisely the duties that one is halakhically obligated to do for one's parents when they become old (Yoreh Dei'ah Ch. 240). Intelligent people must have been asking what good long life is if you are not well. And now it's gotten much worse. Our life spans bli ayin hara are longer than ever, but quality has not kept up. We still become dependent, and economic and social realities are such that our children cannot care for us even if they want to. We end up warehoused in old folks' homes and cared for by strangers (and if we live long enough to contract Alzheimer's disease, our own children might as well be strangers). Simple arikhut yamim turned into a curse. Here's where the medical community comes in. They conquered pneumonia (once called the old man's friend) and all sorts of infectious diseases that used to carry us off before we turned into total physical and mental wrecks. Now they have to find a way to replace cartilage and synovial fluid so our joints continue to function and we can maintain the active life that keeps our cardiovascular systems and our brains healthy. Find a way to maintain the size and strength of our muscles so that we can continue performing the activities of daily living that we take for granted. In short, let it be well with us so that long life may once again be a blessing.


Friday, July 20, 2007

Shafran in Jewish Action

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudat Yisrael in America, published an article in the most recent issue of Jewish Action, a publication of the Orthodox Union. In it, he lauds the essential unity between his camp and that of the Orthodox Union, despite differences over issues like Zionism and, to his way of thinking, tensions between comtemporary science and Torah. The following is a letter I sent to the editor of Jewish Action in response:

To the Editor:

I was surprised to see an article by Avi Shafran of Agudat Yisrael in Jewish Action, with its emphasis on commonality of interest between Centrists as represented by the Orthodox Union and haredim of the Agudat Yisrael stripe. However, I must take issue with some points raised by Shafran and by Berel Wein in his companion piece.

Rabbi Wein tells us that the term haredi was coined in the 1980s by Religious Zionists to disparage those on their right. The scenario I remember was quite different. I grew up in a modern, religious Zionist home and was a member of Bnei Akiva in the late 1960s. When we wanted to disparage Jews on our right we called them "khnyocks." A neighborhood that they took over (e.g. Boro Park, which once had a branch of Bnei Akiva that hosted spirited hakafot on Simhat Torah!) was said to be "ferkhnyocked." As far as I know, the first use of the term haredi was by the prophet Isaiah (66:5), referring to Jews who feared God. Why would any Orthodox Jew disparage another as "one who fears God?" I also remember Israeli products bearing the hekhsher of the Beit Din Tzedek of the Eida Ha-haredit, touted by those on the right as more trustworthy than that of the "Zionist Rabbanut." So, at least as early as the 1960s, the term haredi was being used by haredim, in keeping with the holier-than-thou attitude that they cultivate.

Rabbi Shafran, in his laudatory remarks about the state of Orthodox Jewry today, makes no mention of a matter in which he and his organization are nog'im badavar (interested parties), namely a festering sex abuse scandal in a yeshiva a stone's throw from my home and in a summer camp run by Agudat Yisrael. He can be forgiven for his silence because the matter is the subject of pending litigation, but we will not remain silent. Several years ago a similar scandal involving Baruch Lanner rocked the Orthodox Union and its youth group NCSY. Victims were encouraged to complain to the police, investigations were carried out and, needless to say, Baruch Lanner does not work for NCSY any more. In contrast, Yehuda Kolko was protected by his principal, Lipa Margulies, and given access to children for 40 years. Victims and their families were intimidated into not contacting the police, "gedolim" (Rabbi Shafran's outfit calls them gedolim; I call them resha'im) were recruited into the cover-up and, but for exposure by the blogosphere, Kolko would still be molesting children in Torah Temima. This occurs because the haredi camp maintains an attitude to secular authority carried over from the benighted tyrannies of Eastern Europe where Jews were singled out for persecution, and that is a touchstone of the debate between our two camps: do we consider ourselves full-blooded Americans?

Rabbi Shafran also cites the importance of kiruv rehokim, outreach to the unaffiliated and disaffected, but makes no mention of the fact that his camp is actively engaged in rihuk kerovim, alienating people born into observant homes. I refer to the scandal known as Slifkingate. Several years ago a Who's Who of haredi rabbinic authority banned several books by Rabbi Natan Slifkin that show with unimpeachable Torah sources that there is no conflict between modern biology and Torah. In the process these members of Aguda's Moetzet Gedolei Torah placed Orthodoxy, or rather their travesty of it, firmly in league with the Flat Earth Society. As a long-time biology teacher with a doctorate in the subject, I must say to Rabbi Shafran that if there is no place at the table for Rabbi Slifkin, and by extension for the Rambam, the Tiferet Yisrael, Rav Kook and numerous other distinguished Rishonim and Aharonim that Rabbi Slifkin cites (by his own admission, his works contain few if any hiddushim), then I must politely but firmly excuse myself from the table.

Sincerely yours,

Zev Stern, Ph.D.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

From bad to worse

Tension between religious and secular, and even national-religious and haredi, in Israel are going from bad to worse. Click here for the latest from Y-Net. Assuming it is accurate (and hoping it is not), it is hard to resist the conclusion that haredi goon squads, with the encouragement of the Eida Ha-haredit, are turning our State into another Iran. Here's my take:

1. It's a law enforcement problem. The police have to do their duty even if it makes them uncomfortable.

2. Like bullies everywhere, haredi bullies need to be stood up to. When that happens they always back down. Their dati leumi targets served in the Army and were trained in hand to hand combat. I don't want to say the rest; it's too painful. But sometimes we all have to do things that are painful. The alternative is worse. Those goons can not be allowed to subvert the democratic character of the State and turn Israel into another Iran.

3. As for Popinjay ["Rabbi" Shmuel Haim Popenheim of Eida Ha-haredit] , now we have it from the horse's (donkey's?) mouth. The Eida Ha-haredit encourages criminal violence. That will influence how we relate to them and to their "gedolim." To hell with them all.

[Hat tip: Failed Messiah]

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The big lie and the inferiority complex

It is said that if a lie is big enough and repeated often enough it will be accepted as incontrovertible truth, and the liar may even come to believe it himself. Such a lie has been afflicting the Orthodox community for more than a generation. The haredi party line about Jewish life in America is that until their parents and grandparents came to these shores after the Holocaust America was a Jewish desert, a midbar shemama, and the bearded black-hatted Yiddish-speaking newcomers rescued us from certain doom. We who were born here, dress American, speak English without an accent and whose forebears proudly wore the American uniform while others were walking into gas chambers have bought into the lie and, as a result, are reluctant to raise our voices in protest against the abuses and usurpations being perpetrated on our right.

America was not, repeat not, a desert. We had an Orthodox synagogue here in New York when it was still New Amsterdam. Shearith Israel still thrives on Central Park West and W. 70 St. My daughter taught in its religious school. B'nei Jeshurun was founded in 1825 to serve New York's burgeoning Ashkenazi community and it still thrives. At the turn of the previous century the majestic Eldridge Street Synagogue was founded on the Lower East Side to serve the new arrivals from Eastern Europe. It is now undergoing extensive renovation ( ). It is far from the only synagogue to spring up in New York at that time. Neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Brownsville were teeming with Jewish life. My alma mater, Yeshivah of Flatbush, was founded in 1927 to educate boys and girls who would be both Jewish and American. Its educational philosophy has not changed much since. And this was in New York alone.

My mother was born and raised in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Her father a"h arrived from Hungary as a prisoner of war in World War I (like many Jews of the time, he fought on the wrong side). Eventually he moved his family to Crown Heights to improve his daughters' marriage prospects (to my sorrow, he had no sons). The fact that he was willing to uproot himself in precarious economic times speaks to the viability of Torah in America long before the Holocaust.

Yes, there has been a flowering of Torah life in this country brought about by arrivals from Europe after World War II. So why am I complaining? Because we have lost our collective voice, and are too deferential to the newcomers and their rabbinic establishment. Because haredi triumphalism brought with it smugness and intolerance of other ways of living a Torah life. Because today if a boy wears a kippa seruga or if a girl wears pants, or we carry on Shabbat in our neighborhood eruv, or we identify ourselves as Zionist, or we pursue higher education, we are somehow not Jewish enough. We look for halakhic guidance to authority figures on our right who are not attuned to American culture, who might not speak English or even Hebrew. After Slifkingate, this position has become untenable. We cannot afford to defer to Torah authorities whose vision of Torah cannot accommodate external reality. We cannot accept the authority of people who counsel tearing pages out of books (Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 3:73). If we do, more and more of our best and brightest will give up on Torah life altogether. It is high time that we, through the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, stand up and proclaim that we are just as Jewish as the haredim, that our Torah scholars are every bit as good as theirs, nay better because they speak our language, are educated and understand where we are culturally. We cannot afford to maintain our inferiority complex, or Torah in the coming generations will be relegated to the status of a living fossil.

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Early Hannukah present

Maccabi Tel-Aviv will play an exhibition in New York against the Knicks on Thursday October 11, 2007. If the Knicks are laughing, they should check with the Toronto Raptors, whom Maccabi Tel-Aviv defeated previously. Maccabi also won the Euroleague championship five times, the latest being 2005. Proceeds will benefit Migdal Ohr, a youth village that works with disadvantaged and immigrant children. Tickets can be purchased through the N.Y. Knicks.

Comin' on strong

"Hammer of God" playing
Toronto Raptors

Editorial Comment: This is how Israel deals with poor, immigrant and refugee children. Our enemies teach theirs to be terrorists and suicide bombers.

Barukh ha-mavdil bein Yisrael

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