Monday, November 19, 2007

A Time for Courage

“In a place where there are no men, try to be a man.” – Avot 2:5

Recent events in our community have shown a total failure of leadership, especially among haredim but affecting others as well. People whom we have revered as gedolei Torah have proven to be either incompetent fools or truly evil men. The trickle of disturbing indicators of something amiss has become a torrent that we ignore at our peril and that of our children, who are increasingly alienated and giving up on being observant Jews.

The trouble began with an aversion to modernity. Secular education is frowned upon. Specific areas of knowledge that gedolim deem incompatible with our faith are shut out of our universe. For me as a biologist this is particularly galling, since the central unifying concept of my discipline, the theory of evolution, is on the verboten list, as is study of sexual reproduction. Books on the subject have been banned as heretical by old greybeards who often have not even read the books because they do not read or understand English. The late Rav Moshe Feinstein issued a psak (legal decision) in 1969 directing yeshiva administrators to tear pages dealing with evolution out of textbooks (Igrot Moshe Yoreh De’ah 73:3). This practice cheats students out of a quality education and makes it impossible for intellectually honest, ethical teachers to teach biology at those institutions. But if you were not a scientist or an academic insisting on your intellectual freedom, you were not affected – until now.

This aversion to education translates itself of late into a culture of parasitism and an allergy to work. Men are encouraged to spend a lifetime in full time Torah study, while women assume the burden of supporting the family. What was once a non-negotiable requirement and even a cliché – How do you propose to support my daughter? – is now a black mark in the marriage market. Older men who should be contemplating retirement are expected to work until they drop to support able-bodied but parasitic sons-in-law in full time learning. The result, predictably, is an epidemic of poverty and reliance on professional schnorrers. Not a thought is given to how that culture can be sustained once the older generation dies and the new generation of men who refuse to work for a living – and who cannot hold down a decent job because they don’t have a decent education – have to marry off their own children.

We have allowed the medievalists to impose their will on the rest of us in myriad ways, each being trivial but the totality stretching the limits of our tolerance. For instance, people are made to feel self-conscious if they go out dressed like Americans – nothing particularly risqué, just a T-shirt and jeans. Athletics for young women (and, increasingly, young men) are looked askance at, never mind that there is a positive mitzvah to take care of one’s health and you would be hard put to find a physician who would agree that sitting over books for most of the waking day is healthy. We are unable to sit next to our wives at a Bar Mitzvah, wedding or similar social function. We cannot sit next to our wives – or dates – at Jewish music concerts and similar performances. Indeed, our young men and women are deprived of any opportunity to meet one another in a wholesome environment and to date American style, without the permission of a matchmaker, and then we complain about a “shiddukh crisis.” All these things were common practice among American Orthodox Jews up until recently; only in the last generation have we allowed people to the right of us with a different world-view to make us feel inferior and adopt practices that are alien to our way of thinking.

We have accepted all this, however reluctantly, because it was seen as coming from men who forgot more Torah than most of us will ever know. But now the situation has gotten totally out of hand, and those same “Torah giants” allow the evil to infect us. When I was growing up there were embarrassing incidents when prominent Orthodox Jews were convicted, and sometimes sent to prison, for a gamut of white collar crimes. Violent crime was the province of “other people.” Not any more. A practice has developed in Israel where public buses are segregated by gender, with men in front and women in back. Israeli women have been beaten up by “religious” Jews (they only look religious) for refusing to move to the back of the bus. An American oleh who opened a pizza shop in Ramat Bet Shemesh was attacked violently because he allowed boys and girls to sit together. When he complained to a rabbi in the community, he was told that if he didn’t comply he “might end up dead.” Is this a rabbi or a mafia don? The beleaguered businessman closed his shop and reopened in a more normal part of town. There were instances where self-appointed “tznius patrols” set fire to stores selling clothing that did not meet with their approval, and poured bleach on the clothing of women when it did not meet their standards. Certain rabbis, with the apparent backing of their gedolim, try to enforce separate hours for men and women at doctors’ offices, and sometimes men and women are compelled to walk on opposite sides of the street. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that elements of the haredi community would be happy to see Israel transformed into a benighted theocratic hellhole like Iran.

Even so, normal people like us were not affected as long as we stayed out of haredi neighborhoods and did not ride Israeli public buses frequented by the hooligans. Now, however, a development is taking place that threatens our legitimacy as Jews in good standing. A conference was recently held in America, sponsored by an outfit calling itself “Eternal Jewish Family,” and attended by an assortment of haredi and modern Rabbinic leaders. Ostensibly, the conference was called to standardize procedures for Orthodox conversions in America and Israel, so that conversions performed in America would be recognized by the haredi-controlled Israeli Rabbanut. This, in itself, is a laudable goal. However, one of the speakers was a certain Rabbi Eisenstein, supposedly a right hand man for Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the revered Israeli Rosh Yeshiva and a man in his 90s. He stated from the podium, in the name of Rav Elyashiv, that anybody who believes the universe to be greater than 5768 years old is a kofer ba’iqqar, a major heretic, and therefore unqualified to serve as a dayyan (Rabbinic judge) and perform conversions. Nobody walked out, nobody raised an objection, there was no meha’ah (protest) of any kind, despite the fact that many attendees were members of the modern Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and their legitimacy as rabbis, and the legitimacy of their congregants as kosher Jews, was being called into question. For if a rabbi is unqualified to be a dayyan, he also cannot be a witness and cannot arrange a get, or Jewish divorce. According to Rabbi Eisenstein (and Rav Elyashiv?), conversions, and presumably gittin, performed by these “heretics” are retroactively invalid. The implications of such a statement, and of its going unchallenged by our “modern” rabbis, cannot be overstated. In a few generations we will all, according to Rabbi Eisenstein and his ilk, be mamzerim, illegitimate, and unable to marry within the Jewish fold.

We must not remain silent in the face of such an outrage. The RCA must stop looking over its right shoulder for validation (see my earlier post). They and we do not need validation from these crazies. But courage is not the RCA’s strong suit. For instance, while they issued a statement affirming that Torah and evolution are compatible, they did not protest the banning of Rabbi Slifkin’s books by a who’s who of haredi rabbinic authority in Israel. Such a failure by our authority figures to stand up for intellectual liberty emboldens the crazies who would march us back to the Dark Ages. Thus emboldened, the crazies, bullies that they are, commit further outrages. If the RCA is too timid to step up to the plate and assert our legitimacy and the viability of our hashkafot within Torah Judaism, then the amkha, we ordinary folk, must step up. So here goes. I never signed on to Agudat Yisrael so I am not bound in any way by their Moetzet Gedolei Torah, either here or in Israel. Their gedolim are not mine. I look elsewhere for guidance. And I will say what the RCA is afraid to say. The emperors have no clothes. They are either fools or knaves – tipshim or resha’im. If they do not know about the hooliganism, the economic parasitism, the out-of-control halakhic pronouncements, being carried out in their communities, where people hang on their every word, then they are tipshim (or senile, no fault of theirs). If they know and condone the shenanigans with their silence, then they are resha’im. In either case, they are unfit to lead. It has been said in their defense that many of them are old, weak and manipulated by others such as Rabbi Eisenstein, who sign their names to posters and who speak in their name without their knowledge or approval. If so, then we must challenge them to publish their pronouncements in their handwriting, and announce the same in their own voices, recorded on videotape and posted on You Tube or a similar medium, so that their authenticity is beyond question. If any of them are reading this, consider yourselves challenged. If the authority of gedolim is being usurped by their “handlers,” i.e. the Eisensteins, then the Israeli secular authorities should consider filing criminal charges against said handlers. If indeed Rav Elyashiv and his fellow gedolim are of the opinion that RCA-type rabbanim who live in the 21st century are pasul, then we must publicly repudiate their leadership. We must then set up, if we have not already done so, a computerized registry of all marriages, divorces and conversions acceptable to us performed anywhere in the world including Israel. If the crazies consider us mamzerim, so be it; we do not need their recognition except in Israel, where the Rabbanut controls marriage and divorce. Eventually Israeli secularists will be thoroughly fed up with the crazies, and we will join forces with them to take back control of the Rabbanut. Then the computerized registry will become an official government registry, and the crazies will be relegated to the fringe, living in their own comfy cozy Fantasyland, perhaps a tourist attraction, but otherwise as irrelevant to the rest of society as the Pennsylvania Dutch.

I know not the course others may take, but I will not sit idly by as the religion I was born into, raised in and love is hijacked by medieval crazies, just as Islam, once a great world civilization, was hijacked by its crazies.

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Blogger Jeff Eyges said...


I was also very upset when I read about this last week, but it seemed that no one could confirm the story. On one of the blogs I read regularly, someone commented that R. Eisentstein's meaning was exaggerated, and that there's some question as to whether this represents R. Elyashiv's opinion in any case. I tried to find the comment again to past here, but I haven't been able to.

Also, according to some others who have chimed in, even if someone is unqualified to serve as a dayan, that doesn't automatically disqualify him from performing conversions. I don't know whether this is the halachah; I'm way out of my depth.

Has the story finally be substantiated?

I'd wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, but I've also read that we're apikorsim on that score as well!

Tue Nov 20, 02:14:00 PM EST  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

Precisely the point - we have to hear their voices and see their faces so we know it's really them.

As far as I know, if one cannot be a dayan then he cannot be an eid (witness) either, which pretty much disqualifies him from performing marriages and arranging gittin. But I could be wrong.

I will have a post soon about Thanksgiving bli neder.

Tue Nov 20, 05:52:00 PM EST  
Blogger Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

From what I've heard, Rav Eliashiv is barely in control of his handlers anymore. They've stolen his signature stamp and are putting out psak after psak with his name on it.
Rav Sliffkin is a case in point. According to someone who spoke with Rav Eliashiv's son, his entire position on the matter is "I don't agree with what Rav Sliffkin wrote." The ban? Came from the handlers in his name.
Which makes you wonder: if the inmates are running the asylum, how can we still have respect for the warden?
An alternative has to be developed, one that is strong and with focus so it can counter chareidi claims at being the exclusive form of Torah Judaism. My blog has such an article (shameless plug).

Sat Nov 24, 09:04:00 PM EST  
Blogger Jeff Eyges said...


I read your article. I agree that MO defines itself in opposition to the Chareidim on one side and the non-Orthodox on the other - although it seems to me that what you are proposing is pretty much just a Chareidisim that isn't disdainful of secular employment.

I agree that it would be nice to see a Modern Orthodoxy that has the cojones to stand up to the Chareidim, but, even it that were the case, I don't think it would make any difference. The Chareidi world has devolved into cults of personality; also, keeping the rest of reality at bay has become paramount. These belief systems are based on fear, and their participants will reinforce the boundaries whenever and in whatever way they can. They don't care about what you think, and they certainly don't care about what the non-Orthodox think. The idea of a "viable alternative" will be lost upon them - although you may slow or even halt the absorption of right wing MO into that world.

Sun Nov 25, 03:07:00 PM EST  
Blogger DrMike said...

Hey Cipher, first off: thanks for reading the article and the thoughtful feedback. I'm hoping it stimulates a lot of discussion in the next while.
Second, Garnel just posted it on his website for me.
Finally, in response to your concerns, I'm not proposing a Chareidism that isn't disdainful of secular employment. The point is quite different. While many like to criticize the Chareidim, there are some things they do quite well One is inspire passionate loyalty to the core group and its standards. It's that kind of passion I want to see developed in Modern Orthodoxy. This does NOT necessarily mean a move to the right for the MO community but I want them to become passionate about what they are. If they have a certain element of secular society in their lifestyle it should be for God-loving reasons, not "just because". If that happens, they can attract Chareidim who are disillusioned with their communities as well as non-frum Jews looking for a Torah lifestyle but not interested in the black hat and suit.
And finally, I don't care what the Chareidim think of the idea, no more than Target cares what Wal-Mart thinks of its latest sale. In the best spirit of the American dream, I want to see a spiritual competitiveness develop. As our sages say, the one type of jealously that is allowed is a jealousy between scholars because it increases wisdom. If the MO community unites and decides to take itself seriously, it can have a voice that counters the Chareidi one and improve the Torah options in the Jewish community.

Sun Nov 25, 05:20:00 PM EST  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

Dr. Mike –

I read your article and must take issue with several points. I don’t think that agreeing to disagree with other religions is pathetic at all, in fact it is absolutely essential to the American enterprise. Claims about the supernatural, unlike scientific statements, cannot be tested against nature. I can’t prove the reality of Mattan Torah any more than a Catholic can prove the reality of the Virgin Birth, but I can recognize that a religious truth claim can be objectively false while its adherents are good people and not liars, insofar as lying implies knowing that a statement is false and intending to deceive. And if the religion makes its adherents better people, then it benefits them even if it is false, and I can work with them professionally and in my community on matters of common concern, e.g. neighborhood improvement.

It is something of a self-evident truth that we do what we do in the hope of serving God better. We don’t have to say so explicitly any more than a scientist has to write in every paper that he is doing an experiment to test a hypothesis against observable reality. Everyone who plays the game knows the rules and agrees to them – though that seems doubtful in the case of some Orthodox scientists. When we say that we don’t think God has a problem with our watching TV, we are making a legalistic statement, namely hamotzi me-havero alav ha-ra’aya. If you want to take away this pleasure or that one, you have the burden of showing that it’s assur. “We didn’t do it in Europe,” or “Rabbi X won’t allow it in his yeshiva” doesn’t satisfy the burden of proof.

I’m not sure what you mean by modern Orthodox people lacking passion for our way of life, but it might be simply a matter of American men not being given to public displays of emotion. It is certainly true that after the ultimate feminization of the Holocaust we’ve embraced our manhood with great gusto. That includes climbing the stairs when elevators are available (on weekdays!) and walking tall (all five-foot-six) in what our mothers consider rough neighborhoods, with our kippot proudly on our heads. It also encompasses a kind of stoicism that was not a virtue in Eastern Europe and that can be mistaken for unfeeling coldness. I would not be taking time to write this blog if I did not care deeply about the issues on which I write.

It is true that a movement cannot be defined solely by what it is not, and ours needs a positive philosophy to attract adherents (it also needs a higher birthrate; the haredim are on the ascendant partly because they are outbreeding us). Rabbi Daniel Goldstein, formerly of Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn, articulated three points following Rabbi Soloveitchik:
1. Secular studies, important for their own sake and not merely as a means of earning a living. We are citizens of the world, and knowledge enhances our Judaism by enhancing our humanity. Stewardship of the earth is a Jewish imperative (l’ovdah ul’shomrah) and a necessary precondition for the other mitzvot. And in today’s Orthodox climate, to assert this world-view takes a good deal of courage.
2. The centrality of the State of Israel, be it marching in parades and attending rallies (in cooperation with the non-Orthodox), celebrating Yom Ha-atzma’ut, serving in the army and so forth.
3. Women’s studies and women’s participation in Jewish communal life - to be encouraged within the boundaries of halakha, though we don’t agree among ourselves on where the boundaries are.

Tue Dec 04, 12:37:00 AM EST  

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