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.

Labels: , , , , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem is the OU DID stonewall on the Lanner case, did intimidate witnesses (think about Rabbi Willigs disgraceful behavior in beit din), did protect Lanner.

And, no, the OU did not completely clean house. Protectors of Baruch Lanner still walk those halls.

And this issue of JA seems to be more evidence of the OU's drift to the right.

I wonder if they'll publish your letter.

Fri Jul 20, 03:42:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They will never, ever publish that letter (at least as is).

Fri Jul 20, 12:00:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Chareidim, in spirit if not name, date back to the Chasam Sofer

More later when I have time.

Sun Jul 22, 02:25:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Reb Yudel said...

"Haredi" , iirc, was the term that Agudah itself preferred to the traditional "ultra-Orthodox."

Mon Jul 23, 06:19:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Maybe the problem with Modern Orthodoxy today is that it lacks a cool name. I'm going to suggest a few on my blog (shamless plug:

Really, I don't blame Rav Shafran. He collects a paycheque to present the Agudah's point of view in all its selectivity. He would be stealing his wages if he didn't. That's what makes the blogsphere so important. I would be interested in seeing Rav Shafran's response to this letter though.

Tue Jul 24, 05:59:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

whoa, whoa, whoa -- is that a picture of you in the upper-right without sleeves?

clearly, i cannot take seriously anything that you've just said.


Tue Jul 24, 08:34:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please come to Staten Island for a Shabbos and go to the Agudah. Confront Rav Shafran. It should be interesting, especially between Minchah and Maariv.

Wed Jul 25, 07:36:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The OU was disgraceful in its management of the Lanner case. They concealed the facts for over 20 years after the beit din was convened originally and kept him in the NCSY organization, around children. If not for an article in the Jewish Week, he would still be working with Jewish youth. Even after the article broke, they tried to conceal the facts. Prominent Lanner supporters still serve as community rabbis and achool principals in the MO world (and testified on his behalf at his criminal trial).
No, I wouldn't hold the Lanner case up as an example of exemplary behavior, or ethical decision making by the OU.

Wed Jul 25, 09:39:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and the intimidation of witnesses during the original beit din and even 20 years later was something you had to personally experience to actually believe a religious organization could do such a thing.

Wed Jul 25, 09:42:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess you believe everything Slifkin writes.

Mr. Slifkin (or Rabbi, I apologize, as he recieved Semicha) extends principles of certain Rishonim and Acharonim to heretofore unprecedented possibilities (as they obviously were not writing about today's present issues). Second, he presents it as the only possibility, as he blieves it is only legitamite approach toward explaining Chazal in light of scientific facts (that is clear in what he writes).

This goes against other Rishonim and Acharonim who Slifkin marginally pays homage to in one of his books by way of introduction.

Call those rishonim and acaronim members of the Flat Earth Society, and leave the table. But you are leaving the company of some equally significant individuals in our history.

I don't mind your anxiety--so long as it is sincere. I can relate to it somewhat. But I would rather leave myself with a question as to how to understand certain maamorei Chazal than keep myself apart from a whole contingent of Jews. I do not mind the statements of Rav hirsch, obviously, but I do not believe Rabbi Slifkin should have maintained his aggressive stance as he did. I believe he could have saved himself and his cause several times. In fact, I believe certain MO kannoim (that's right, they are out there) made dialogue and concession impossible on his end.

That being said, I am only more than slightly sympathetic with the situation he put himself in. You, on the other hand, are throwing away some of the greatest minds and hearts of our people for the sake of an imbalanced inarticulate view.

Wed Jul 25, 10:48:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

I had forgotten the extent of the stonewalling in the Lanner case. No, the OU's conduct was not exemplary, but eventually victims' families would have gone to the police because that's our mindset: we're Americans and when we become crime victims we go to the police. As for testifying for the defense at Lanner's trial, there's nothing wrong with that if the testimony is true. That's what trials are for.
I don't blame Shafran either. He's employed by Aguda and defending Aguda is his job. I just don't envy him, since he's often defending the indefensible.
The halakhic process almost by definition involves extending halakhic principles (extrapolating if you will) to situations undreamed-of by those who originally articulated the principals. There are otherwise intelligent members of our community who insist on ignoring metziut (external reality). It never ceases to amaze me how they can do this, but they are not the company I wish to keep. Enlightened people test their ideas against external reality, not someone's interpretation of Divine revelation (I accept the revelation, but not the interpretation that flies in the face of observable reality).
If anything, I think that Rabbi Slifkin is too conciliatory. He asked for meetings with gedolim after the defamatory posters went up; the gedolim refused to meet with him. He concedes their right to ban his works if they were heretical, which he was prepared to demonstrate they were not. We corresponded a little on this; I would have come out swinging. But then he's Britiah and I'm American. Give me liberty or give me death.

Fri Jul 27, 02:28:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I fear that you may not know the full story of Slifkin and might be jumping to conclusions. Although he claims that he never was given the ability to meet with Gedolim, there's another side to the story. Check this out
and then decide what you want. It's a very fascinating read and illuminating.

Mon Jul 30, 12:40:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Slifkin is omitting some key facts. That could be the only justification for Slifkin appearing conciliatory. I would agree that based on my independent research, Slifkin knew that he was in some trouble, and refused to meet Rav Miller on more than one occassion. As a very astute commenter noted, Slifkin did this to himself.

Freelance kiruv maniac has far more substantive points.

Mon Jul 30, 04:55:00 PM EDT  

Post a Comment

<< Home