Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Sound of Silence

   In a few days the Summer Olympics will begin in London.  Shabbat and Tish’a B’Av will preclude my watching the always picturesque opening ceremonies and the beginning of the swimming events.  The Olympics are supposed to be apolitical, and indeed there is nothing like sport for bringing people of all nations and cultures together and actually creating peace.  But politics will intrude on these Olympics whether we like it or not.  This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Olympics at Munich, where eleven Israeli athletes, coaches and officials were murdered by Arab terrorists.  For a perspective from an American wrestler who was there, and whose son will be wrestling for the United States in London, click here.  Throughout these forty years, not once were these innocent people memorialized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at an Olympic Games.  No sense alienating the Arabs, Iranians and other terrorists and their apologists.

   Several days ago, Tablet Magazine published an article on the subject that is spot-on.  If the victims had been from any other country, there would have been ceremonies and memorials.  There is only one reason they will go unnoticed – they were Jewish and Israeli.  Jews are as expendable now as they were 70 years ago.  And Israel is as expendable as it was in May 1967, when the Arab armies were massing on the borders, the Strait of Tiran was blockaded, and the world did absolutely nothing.  And the Olympic committee is as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic now as when Avery Brundage, an open admirer of Hitler, was heading it up in 1972.

   I believe that the Israeli delegation ought to take matters into its own  hands.  They ought to march in the opening ceremonies with their heads held high and wearing black armbands, and when they are facing the reviewing stand and dignitaries, pull out signs bearing the names of the murdered men, hold them aloft and stand stock still for sixty seconds.  Maybe they will be sent home.  Maybe they will be arrested.  Whatever happens, they will have shown the dignity that the world would deny them.

   Oh, one more thing.  The British seem to have trouble with security.  Israel, the United States, and all freedom-loving countries likely to be targeted should bring plenty of their own security, undercover.  If the Israelis had done that forty years ago, the tragedy would probably not have taken place.

Moshe Weinberg

Yosef Gottfreund

Eliezer Halfin

Mark Slavin

Yosef Romano

Yaakov Shpringer

David Berger

Ze’ev Friedman

Kehat Shor

Andre Spitzer

Amitzur Shapira

    The world sowed the wind then.  It is reaping the whirlwind now.  Never forget.  Never let others forget.


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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Misery Loves Company

   In Hebrew, there is a saying: Tzarat rabim hatzi nehama, literally “The suffering of many is half a comfort.”  A rough English equivalent would be, “Misery loves company.”  I received two reminders that many of the troubles in the Orthodox Jewish community featured on my blog reflect deep rooted problems in the general society. 

   A month and a half ago, the New York Times Magazine published a story about a simmering sex abuse scandal at Horace Mann School in The Bronx, one of the country’s most exclusive and prestigious private schools.  As usual in such cases, once one victim found the courage to come forward, a veritable flood of similar stories surfaced, some recent enough to make criminal prosecution possible.  Before the dust settled, at least one student and one faculty member committed suicide.  One of the culprits was none other than Johannes Somary, a music teacher at the school and a maestro in the grand European tradition on the outside.  I own at least one disc of a classical concert he conducted.  Learning of his crimes was, l’havdil, like learning about Rav Moshe Feinstein advising teachers to tear pages out of biology books (Igrot Moshe Yoreh De’ah 3:73).  He was allowed to continue teaching at the school until he retired at the age of 67.  He subsequently died of natural causes, never having had to answer to the law.

                                                              Horace Mann School

   An even more publicized scandal took place at Penn State University, home of the Nittany Lions football team and their legendary coach Joe Paterno.   A low-level employee of the football program observed inappropriate conduct between an assistant coach and a ten-year-old boy and, at the risk of his job, came forward.  Things moved rather quickly.  After some initial stonewalling, the assistant coach was fired, and then convicted of multiple crimes involving children.  Joe Paterno, who died of lung cancer soon after the story broke, had his name tarnished forever for his lack of leadership. 

   What do we learn from this?  First, not to be incredulous that such things can happen, in the best schools with the best and brightest teachers, coaches and students.  The yetzer hara [evil impulse] doesn’t discriminate, and pedophiles gravitate to occupations where they have access to victims.  One obvious such occupation is teaching, and good teachers suffer from the actions of the perverts in whose shadow they work.  No more being alone in a room with a student (of either sex) for after-school tutoring.  Second, for all that hazal did not know much about modern science, they were more insightful into human nature than most of us are.  They did not pretend there was no such thing as a yetzer hara, and prescribed modest dress for females, no casual touching of other men’s wives and so forth.  Third, incidents of sexual abuse cannot be handled internally within the institution.  The instinct of an institution, secular or religious, is to circle the wagons and protect the brand.  Only the authorities (police and prosecutors) have the legal authority and the technical know-how to conduct a proper forensic investigation and collect evidence that will stand up in court.  Since time is of the essence, don’t even ask a rabbi for permission (the Aguda got it wrong as usual).  Go to the police, go directly to the police, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars.

   The second reminder I received concerns the anti-intellectual, and in particular the anti-science mindset that infects the Orthodox community.  The same mindset. less pronounced, infects American society in general and prevents many public school teachers from teaching evolution and climate change as they should be taught.  Newsflash: Evolution is the sun around which all of biology revolves.  There is no controversy about this in the scientific community.  Likewise, there is a broad consensus in the scientific community that climate change is both real and anthropogenic, i.e. we are causing most of it.  But you’d never know it from following much of the popular press, conservative websites such as Townhall and, incredibly, many candidates for President of the United States.  The National Center for Science Education, a group that monitors the teaching of evolution and climate change throughout the country, pointed me in its weekly newsletter to a book, “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America,” by Shawn Lawrence Otto, Rodale Press, 2011.  It is at the same time enlightening and depressing.  The author indicts scientists for taking public money but communicating only among themselves, not bothering to explain to the public what they do and why they do it.  The result is that communicating science is left to science writers who often are not trained scientists themselves.  I might add that too many science teachers majored in education where, from personal experience, I know that they learned next to nothing, and do not hold an undergraduate, let alone an advanced degree, in the subject they teach.  Our children, whose world will be increasingly dominated by science and technology, thus grow up scientifically illiterate and unable to compete with students from other countries.  Then, when scientific theories seemingly contradict their comforting religious belief systems, rational discussion is foreclosed (you can’t argue with God) and we must rely on the courts to keep science in science class and religion out (see also Berkman, Michael and Eric Plutzer; “Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms,” Cambridge University Press, 2010).  Relying on the courts leaves us complacent, but the other side does not take defeat lightly.  They keep introducing bills that they hope will pass muster, and eventually they will attempt to amend the Constitution to enshrine their own backwardness.   This cannot end well unless trained scientists engage the public and get involved in politics at all levels.  And it shows us Orthodox Jews that no matter how hard we try to wall ourselves off, we are part of the general society and we fail to engage with it at our peril.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Orthodox Tumult Over the Internet

    In the past two months the Orthodox community in New York went “meshuga” [crazy] over the Internet.  The usual suspects had been busy for a number of years manufacturing a problem not unlike the problem they manufactured over television when it was introduced in the 1950s.  Posters went up in Jewish neighborhoods, signed by a slew of prominent haredi rabbis (we still called them khnyocks) warning us of the terrible dangers of television and forbidding the presence of the new medium in our homes.  Even today on occasion those posters go up, and rabbis attempt to purge Orthodox homes of television.  Some families possess “closet TVs,” that are hidden away when haredi guests or, worse, spies for yeshivot which the children attend, visit.  Some yeshivot to this day threaten to expel children whose homes contain a TV.

   But these people are much more worked up over the internet than they ever were over television.  The internet is portrayed as a Trojan horse that will sneak foreign ideas into our camp and irreparably contaminate it.  The rabbis making that argument usually do not use the term “Trojan horse” since they never studied Greek mythology and don’t know a Trojan horse from that other “Trojan,” or how the two are related.  A while ago they formed a group called “Va’ad ha-kehillot l’tohar ha-mahane” (Conference of Communities for the Purity of the Camp) to combat the perceived dangers of the Internet.  As with television two generations ago, some communities attempted to forbid Jewish families from owning computers, certainly computers that were hooked up to the internet.  The big stick they would wield was a threat to expel their children from yeshiva.  But the internet proved too essential to ban.  Today few people can make a living or keep up in their fields without it.  For instance, scientists can now, with a few clicks of a mouse, access material for which I had to spend hours in the library searching the Biological Abstracts 30 years ago when I was researching my doctoral thesis.  Physicians store their patients’ medical records electronically, on their office computers, thereby reducing the likelihood of catastrophic medical errors.  Questions about a diagnosis?  Search a website to review what is known.  Since the internet has become a necessity for almost all of us in just one generation, the rabbis decided to devise ways to keep people, especially children, from accessing “inappropriate material.”   Of course, and contrary to what these rabbis would wish, we are not a monolithic community and we differ widely on what constitutes “inappropriate material.”  Some in the haredi community are experts in information technology (IT), which they could not have studied without access to the internet.  They would devise “internet filters,” that would keep the forbidden material out of our homes.  The Va’ad rented Citi Field, the stadium in Queens where the New York Mets play baseball, for a mass communal rally resembling a revival meeting, where various “gedolim” would address the crowd on the terrible dangers presented by the internet.  God knows how much money that could have been used for urgent communal necessities like paying yeshiva teachers on time and educating children about the dangers of sexual abuse, was squandered for this meeting.  They did fill the stadium, in part by coercing parents of yeshiva children to purchase tickets for the whole “mishpoche” [family], at least the men and boys.  If anything good came out of this rally, it was that some of these children were seeing a stadium for the first time.  As it turned out, the rally was long on fear-mongering and short on practical “solutions.”  Those would be offered community by community.  Midwood (haredim still insist on calling Midwood “Flatbush,” though they wouldn’t set foot in most of Flatbush for fear of their black shadows) had its own rally in an Aguda synagogue not far from where I live.

   I have a confession to make here.  My family was one of the last in Midwood to get a computer and get wired to the internet.  We tend to lag behind in adopting technology; we were one of the last to get a color TV and we didn’t have a VCR until it was about to be replaced by DVD.   A relative of mine, at the time married to a haredi man,  asked me if I had a computer.  I replied in the affirmative.  Do you have the internet?  Again, yes, of course.  I would not deprive my children of such a powerful research tool and place them at a competitive disadvantage relative to their peers both now and later in life.  She couldn’t believe her ears.  The internet was so dangerous; do you know what your children can see with it?  I had an idea – the kind of stuff we used to access in magazines like Playboy secreted in our rooms or even under the floorboards of yeshiva bathrooms.  Adolescents have a healthy curiosity about such things, always have, always will.  Maybe the Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim, for which our kids might be zokhe to be expelled from yeshiva.  Really now, the internet is merely a tool.  A very powerful one to be sure, which, like any tool, can be misused and abused.  Matches are used by arsonists to start fires.  I don’t see anyone trying to ban matches.  We just do our best to catch and prosecute arsonists, and accept some arson as the cost of being able to use fire constructively (one of the developments that set our ancestors on the path to becoming human, but what would haredi rabbis know about that).  And by the time I acquired the tool in the mid-1990s, technology was available to prevent most of the “arson.”  AOL parental controls were more than adequate.  If anything, they were too strict.  All filtering suffers from the trade-off of blocking good   material along with bad.  How do you block "sex" without blocking "sexually transmitted diseases, how do you block "breast" without blocking "breast cancer," and so forth.  I had to ask AOL  to unblock The History Channel so that my son could use it for a school project.  The sky did not fall, and, praise God, both my children turned out fine, thank you.

   The rally in the Aguda synagogue reportedly (I did not attend it, or the one in Citi Field) featured all sorts of filtering technology, as well as spyware that allows parents to monitor their children’s every keystroke if they so desire.  I preferred to trust my children’s judgment and respect their privacy, telling them to close the browser if they see anything that makes them feel uncomfortable and assuring them that if they needed my advice I was always available.  Most of our kids are a lot more tech-savvy than we are; why challenge them to a cyberwar that most of us cannot possibly win?  Another, more pernicious twist was a filter for which a third party had the password and we would not, and spyware that sent all our online activity to a third party.  Supposedly we were more likely to stay on the straight and narrow if someone we knew was privy to our keystrokes.  Well, I have news for them.  I am a dyed-in-the-wool, liberty-or-death American.  I am also an adult, and I refuse to be treated like a child by Aguda rabbis and their camp followers.  My home is my castle.  The world’s knowledge is welcome inside.  Haredi threats and tyranny are not.

   Actually, as soon as I became aware of the anti-Slifkin posters going up, the blinders came off.  It’s been a while since I gave a rat’s ass about Aguda and its Mo’etzet Gedolei Torah.  Slifkingate, you see, is not going away.

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