Dear Alyssa

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Dear Alyssa,

Congratulations on winning the Oratory Contest of the Jewish youth movement BBYO.  The topic was: “If you could modify any of the Ten Commandments, which would you choose and what would your modification be?”

You chose the fourth, the Sabbath, since “as a Reform Jew” you “do not observe the Sabbath in a traditional way.”  Your suggested replacement, in consonance with your belief that “Judaism means something different to everyone,” is: “Be the Jew You Want to Be.

You explained how “No one likes to be commanded to do anything, and especially not teens,” and that you therefore “practice Judaism in the way that works for” you.

“Judaism,” you wrote, “means something different to everyone. I believe that we should not let the kind of Jew we think we should be get in the way of the kind of Jew we want to be.”

What kind of Jews, though, should we want to be?

I don’t know if your family celebrates Passover.  But most affiliated Jewish families, including those belonging to Reform congregations, do mark the holiday, which, you likely know, will arrive in mere weeks.  If you have a Seder, it might have a contemporary theme, which is common in non-Orthodox circles.  You might be focusing on the economic enslavement of workers in many places today, or on human trafficking, or on the environment or on civil rights

All, of course, are worthy subjects for focus.  But Passover, or Pesach, has a history that goes back long before all those concerns.  Your great-grandparents, if not your grandparents, likely conducted a traditional Seder, as surely did their grandparents, and theirs before them, and theirs before them, all the way back to the event such a Seder commemorates: the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt.

It happened, Alyssa.  The Jewish people’s historical tradition has been meticulously transmitted from parents to children over thousands of years, and its most central events were the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai shortly thereafter

The exodus from Egypt was not, as some people think, a rejection of servitude and embrace of freedom.  It was, rather, the rejection of servitude to a mortal king and an embrace of servitude to the ultimate King.  If you read the Torah carefully, you’ll see that fact clearly.  “Send out My nation,” G-d commands, through Moses, “so that they may serve Me.”

And so, while you’re right that people, and especially teens, generally don’t like to be commanded, from the perspective of your religious heritage, being commanded by the Creator, and thus being a light unto the nations in that acceptance of His will, is the greatest privilege imaginable.

In fact, it is the essence of Jewish life.

The end of the exodus story is the revelation of G-d to our ancestors at Mt. Sinai.  There, in an unparalleled historical event, the Creator spoke directly to hundreds of thousands of people.  No one could fabricate such a claim – and no other religion or group ever has.

And at that singular happening, the Torah was entrusted to our ancestors, along with the rules for understanding it and developing the system of laws that we have come to call Halacha.

You are correct that the Reform movement decided at its inception, in nineteenth century Germany, to reject what Judaism stood for over the previous thousands of years.  But there are still Jews – very many of us – who strive to maintain the integrity of the “original” Judaism.

As a thinking, caring young person, you owe it to yourself (and to your people) to not be satisfied with the conclusion you have currently reached, but rather to continue to investigate Jewish history and Jewish texts, and to keep an open mind.  You may be surprised to discover not only the historical veracity of classical Judaism, but the richness of living a “commanded” Jewish life.

I wish you well in that most important quest.

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Sense and Centrifuges

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress is:

  1. A bald political move to shore up support for his candidacy in imminent Israeli elections.
  2. A misguided attempt to meddle in American partisan politics and embarrass President Obama
  3. A straightforward effort to express sincere concerns about the Iranian danger, and the conviction that any negotiations with Iran are inherently misguided.

My guess? A bit of “all of the above.”

There’s no doubt that Mr. Netanyahu’s presenting himself as a prophet before the legislature of the superpower ally of Israel (if not as leader of the Jewish People itself, a mantel he’s been donning of late) will help him in his reelection bid.  Or that he has often seized opportunities to express his dislike of Mr. Obama. (Yes, it’s mutual; kamayim hapanim lapanim…  “As water reflects a face, so the heart of a man to a man.” – Mishlei, 27:19.)

But only a hardened cynic would assume that Mr. Netanyahu’s concern about Iran is a guise, that his disdain for negotiations isn’t sincere.  It surely is.

But is it right?

For those who insist on seeing Mr. Obama as, at best, insufficiently concerned with Jews or Israel, the answer is clear.  Those would be the people who condemn Mr. Obama’s reluctance to use the word “Islam” when referring to Islamist terrorism, and reject his reasoning that doing so would alienate 1.5 billion Muslims.  And who seized on the president’s abysmal choice of adverb in a long interview, when he referred to “vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”

Whether the president meant to say “wanton” or just didn’t realize what he was saying (which happens to many a speaker), a president has no excuse for imprecision.  The pouncing critics, though, ignored the fact that, in the wake of the attack, the White House called it a “violent assault on the Jewish community” and “the latest in a series of troubling incidents in Europe and around the world that reflect a rising tide of anti-Semitism.”  Those intractable critics of Mr. Obama surely reject, as a matter of principle, his strategy regarding Iran.

No one doubts that Iran’s leaders are evil men, and cannot be trusted.  How, though, to thwart their nuclear intentions?  Mr. Netanyahu insists that Iran must shut down all its centrifuges, the machines at the core of the uranium-enrichment process, something no one believes Iran will ever do.  The U.S. has chosen the path of negotiation (with, of course, verification, and likely some Stuxnet-style “alternate strategies” – one example of which was unfortunately uncovered by  the Russian firm Kaspersky Lab last week), carrying the big stick of sanctions, which is what brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place.

If there were a practical option of just bombing Iranian nuclear sites to Islamic heaven, that would be the clear course of action.  Unfortunately, no such option exists, and such an attempt would inflame not only Iran but its proxies and its friends like Russia and China, likely ushering in World War III.

Mr. Netanyahu has been bristling at reports that the current state of negotiations will leave a large number of centrifuges operational.  But anyone who researches the subject will quickly learn that there are a number of factors, like how the machines are configured and what will happen to fuel produced by them, that render the number of centrifuges less than crucial.

Mr. Netanyahu is the face of Israel.  But he isn’t a nuclear expert.  (Recall his 2012 speech before the UN, where he held up a cartoon bomb and implied that by the following spring Iran would have nuclear weapons.)  Someone who is, though, is the retired head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, Uzi Eilam.  And Mr. Eilam favors the negotiations approach, and asserts that “Netanyahu and other politicians have instilled a terrible and unnecessary fear in the Israeli public.

Are he and Obama right?  Or is Bibi? I don’t know, but neither do the posse of pundits who wouldn’t know a centrifuge from a centipede but loudly declare that Obama can’t be trusted and that Bibi is, if not melech Yisrael, at least the wisest of men.

The negotiations may well fail, which will trigger even harsher sanctions against Iran.  To some, that will be a good thing.  To others, an unrestricted Iran is cause for the deepest concern.

None of us can know whether or not to root for the negotiations’ success.  What we all can do, though, is be mispallel that this Adar will bring about a modern-day Purim miracle in the land of the original one, complete with gallows, these, hosting malevolent mullahs.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Is Metzitza Bipeh In Fact Dangerous?

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A tentative agreement was reached yesterday between NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and an association of mohelim and Orthodox representatives with regard to the practice of metzitza bipeh.

An article of mine that appeared in Haaretz yesterday on the ostensible tie between the rite and the cold sore virus (which can be dangerous to babies) can be read here.

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Doubt Thyself

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For years, national network news anchorman Brian Williams told various versions of a story about his experiences during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.  His recent admission that he had gotten crucial facts wrong and his subsequent suspension don’t just comprise another case of the sudden fall of a mighty man (if one can define might as having earned widespread  respect – and $10 million a year).  The scandal may actually hold a niced-sized nugget of instructional hashkafah-gold.

It’s certainly possible, of course, that the broadcaster had been intentionally lying when he claimed to have been on a helicopter that came under fire (a rather foolish choice, since those present with him at the time could, as several eventually did, contradict his account).  But it is also conceivable that Mr. Williams may have unconsciously conflated something he knew had happened to someone else with what actually happened to him, or confused a vivid fantasy with reality.

As Hillary Clinton may have when, in 2008, she claimed to have landed in Bosnia in 1996 amid sniper fire.  She recanted her assertion when a video of the moment showed otherwise.

Many of us, understandably, might more readily attribute a talking head’s or politician’s false claims to venality or vanity.  But the fact remains that memory distortion is not at all rare.  Perhaps you have experienced it yourself.  I have, although not about any grandiose claim of bravado or danger, but about more mundane things like who was at a chasunah or how a book ended.  I’ve been certain that my recall was accurate – until a photograph or document clearly showed me I was not.

Memory, to put it simply, is unreliable. In the 1990s, cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus successfully convinced people that, as children, they had once been lost in a shopping mall. In another study, researchers showed people a doctored image of themselves as children, standing in the basket of a hot air balloon. Half of the participants later had either complete or partial false memories, sometimes “remembering” additional details from this event – an event that never happened.

Psychologists, moreover, have discovered that when people recall things, they often unwittingly “edit” their memories; and then, the next time the memories are recalled, they will include the “edited material,” as part of the original memory.  Disconcerting, but true.

Trial lawyers and judges have long known that people will swear to have seen things that they didn’t in fact see, and that they are most sincere in believing their memories are accurate.

The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 8:2) acknowledges the same.  Explaining that the requirement that a navi perform a miracle is a Torah-requirement but does not imply that a miracle, per se, can prove that its performer has been sent by Hashem, he then adds: “…just as He has commanded us to decide [legal] matters through [the testimony of] two witnesses, even though we cannot know if they are testifying truth or falsehood.”

Two people, in other words, can lie, or be misled by their memories, almost as easily as one.  The Torah’s directive to accept two witnesses’ word isn’t a logical construct but a Divine law.  We can’t know with surety if what was testified is the truth, only that Hashem wants us to accept it as legally determinative.  As to the facts of the matter being testified about, they may have been accurately recounted, intentionally distorted or innocently misremembered.

It would be a mistake to imagine that the unreliability of memory lacks application to our personal lives.  So many of our bein adam lachaveiro dealings, our interpersonal relationships – whether with friends, acquaintances, spouses, employers or employees – are colored by the memories we have of previous interactions, sometimes recalled with a negative tint.

When we come across someone who evinces a dark feeling, and then trace it to what we remember the person once said or did, it might be wise to stop and consider for a moment that our memory may not be entirely accurate.   To consider the possibility that what we recall may be an “enhanced” memory – one that was unintentionally “edited” at some point, or perhaps was inaccurate from the start.

Imagine how different our lives would be if, when dealing with others, we relegated negative memory-baggage to the realm of the doubtful.

Doubting oneself has a bad name in the contemporary world.  But its wisdom seems to be borne out by science.  And, more important, by the imperative of judging others l’chaf zechus.

© 2015 Hamodia

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In Praise of Brainwashing

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A reference to a Shabbos seudah as “brainwashing.”  An attempt by a flag-draped man to enter a Montreal Jewish day school.  And a pre-school morah’s report.  All took place recently and, together, helped me better understand something fundamental about life.

The cynical reference to Shabbos was from a woman quoted in a book.  Sadly, she had left the Jewish observance of her childhood behind.

“My father was always tired and so was my mother,” she explained to the author. “They were fighting. We were fighting. And so there was not that kind of love and joy that makes the brainwashing really stick.”

The brainwashing.

On the very day that quote appeared in a book review, a man draped in a flag of Quebec

tried to enter a chareidi Jewish day school, Yeshiva Gedola, in Montreal, claiming that he wanted to “liberate” its students.

Wisely, the school’s staff did not allow the fellow into the building.  One staff member said “When I answered through the intercom, the man told me: ‘I want to talk to the children because they are imprisoned in this school… I want to liberate the children’.”

Liberate the children.

Two people with a similar perspective, that Jewish children who are raised in their ancestral faith are essentially being psychologically abused, their minds imprisoned, their brains, well, washed.

It’s not an uncommon way of looking at things, unfortunately, these days.  But it’s an ignorant one – quite literally: It ignores the most fundamental mission of any thinking, caring human being.

Does any loving parent – leave aside a Jewish one – allow a child to develop entirely on his own?  Un-“brainwashed” and “unimprisoned”?  Do any parents, no matter how “liberal” or “open-minded” they may be, leave their progeny to their own devices, always?  Children are, understandably, self-centered and, inevitably, somewhat uncivil and rudderless about how to interact with others and with the world.  A parent’s most important role, after providing a child physical nourishment and shelter, is to provide him what might be called ethical nourishment.

On, now, to the preschool morah.  The caregiver was reporting to the mother of a not-yet-3-year-old how her little girl was behaving within her group of pint-sized peers.  The morah recounted how some other toddlers in the group were “negotiating” which of them would occupy the only seat left around an activity table.  Little “Aviva” looked on at the commotion, assessed things, quietly walked across the room, retrieved another kiddie chair and brought it over, upending the need for any further “negotiations.”

To be sure, there are children, like Aviva, who are naturally good-natured.  But even they, and certainly less finely endowed kids, don’t just naturally develop concern for others, or for peace.  The pacifist and empathy muscles, so to speak, are there in all of us, but they need nurturing to develop and grow.  I know the little girl’s parents well, and that they invest much energy in raising their children to be decent human beings.  That’s the only way one has a shot, with Hashem’s help, at such results.

And Aviva’s parents, like most Jewish parents, are raising their children to be not just good people but good Jews, too.  They “brainwash” them by teaching them not only about middos tovos but about the timeless tradition that was handed down through the ages since Har Sinai, to their ancestors, then to those ancestors’ children, and then by those children, once grown, to their own.

In only a matter of weeks (forgive me for spilling the secret!), Jewish families around the world will be engaging in what is the year’s most potent “brainwashing,” as parents and children sit around their seder tables and recount their received testimony about Yetzias Mitzrayim.

The parents will, with the aid of the Haggadah, fulfill the mitzvah to recount that seminal event in Jewish history, and the children, kept awake (with candies and nuts and stunts, granted, not torture) will be brainwashed – that is to say, imprinted with information that will prove not only vital to their lives as strong and knowledgeable Jews, but vital to the entire world, whether that world knows it or not.

Surely the disillusioned authoress who had, nebbich, so deficient a Jewish upbringing, and the Fleurdelisé-draped crusader would not approve.  I won’t likely approve either of how they will raise their own children, presumably to follow in their “independent” footsteps.  Hopefully, those children will be independent enough to realize something their parents don’t: “Brainwashing” is just a hostile way of referring to education one doesn’t like.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Thanks (I think), New York Times

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I can’t say with any certitude that my repeatedly bugging of the New York Times’ public editor (who sent the criticism to a different department — which never responded to me) had anything to do with it.  Or that my opinion piece last year (at http://hamodia.com/2014/08/06/ugly-times/ ) did.

But I’m happy to report that the “Times Journeys” offering of a tour to Israel with the theme “The Israeli-Palestinian Conundrum” seems to no longer feature Hanan Ashwari (who David Harris once said “is to truth what smoking is to health”) as one of its resident experts for the tourists.  (The come-on is at http://www.nytimes.com/times-journeys/travel/israeli-palestinian-dialogue/ .)

But it never hurts to be a squeaky wheel (and to encourage  others to squeak along); sometimes one may get the grease.   One thing is certain: every proper hishtadlus is worth the time and trouble.

And thanks, New York Times, if you did, for taking the criticism seriously.

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The Importance of Ignoring Headlines – and of Being a Mensch

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In February, 2001, I penned a piece for Moment Magazine that caused quite a ruckus

I had titled it “Time to Come Home,” and it was addressed to Jews who belonged to Conservative Jewish congregations.  I made the case that the Conservative movement’s claim of fealty to halacha was hollow and that the movement essentially took its cues from whatever non-Jewish society felt was acceptable or proper.

The issue of same-sex relationships, I contended, would prove my point.  At the time, the movement hadn’t yet rejected the Torah’s clear prohibitions in that area.  I predicted that, as the larger societal milieu was coming to embrace such relationships as morally acceptable, the Conservative movement would follow suit in due time.

(It did, of course, rather quickly.  In 2006, the movement’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” endorsed a position permitting “commitment ceremonies” between people of the same gender and the ordination as Conservative rabbis of people living openly homosexual lives.  But the accuracy of my prediction is not my topic here.)

I pleaded that Conservative Jews who truly respected the concept of halacha  should join their Orthodox brothers and sisters, and “come home,” as per the piece’s title.

It was most upsetting to me to see the final proofs of the article.  The editing and pull-quotes were great, but the piece had been retitled (with the artwork reflecting the renaming) “The Conservative Lie” – in large, bold letters.   I protested mightily but the magazine was adamant about its right to title the piece as it wished.  A newcomer to its pages (and having worked for many weeks on the piece), I relented.

I had expected a torrent of righteous indignation from Conservative leaders for daring to call their dedication to halacha into question.  And it came; the truth hurt.  I also heard from many thoughtful Conservative and ex-Conservative Jews who affirmed my thesis.

But I lament to this day the fact that the harsh title likely prevented many readers from actually weighing what I wrote, that it biased them from the start to regard the writer of the piece as a rude name-caller and to read my words (if they even bothered to) through the lens of that bias.

The experience returned to my consciousness not long ago when I saw the title the Forward placed on a piece I had written, this one about haredi women in the Israeli workplace.

The point of my piece was a simple one.  In much of the multitudinous reportage about high haredi poverty and unemployment rates in Israel, one interesting factor seems to have gone missing: the upsurge in employment of haredi women, trained and placed in a variety of professions by various private groups.

I noted the irony of that ignoring, since women’s economic empowerment has traditionally been celebrated by liberal-minded folks.  And I noted further that while haredi society embraces distinct male and female roles, it seems to have no objection to couples who decide that the husband’s full-time Torah-study is worth the wife’s becoming the family breadwinner.

The title the Forward placed on the piece: “How Ultra-Orthodoxy Is Most Feminist Faith.”

Not only was that not my thesis, but the word “feminism” didn’t even appear among the nearly 800 I had employed

The bloggerai, predictably, went bonkers.  Various armchair commentators seemed to not realize that headlines and titles are the choice of the medium, not the writer.  Some knee-jerk pundits  seemed to have read little beyond the title itself; others read the piece and were outraged that it didn’t fulfill the promise of the title; others still ignored the point of the piece altogether and just took the opportunity to vent spleen over the fact that I had dared address an interesting aspect of the haredi economic situation rather than condemning haredim for their choices.  And some, it seemed, just saw the word haredi and, reflexively, saw red.

A friend of mine, a non-observant Jew, recently sent me some unsolicited comments.  While he is puzzled in some ways by haredim, he noted how, deep into middle age, he has discovered how important it is to “understand that the other person has a point of view, that one should not judge a specific situation without knowing the specifics.”  As he grows older, my friend continued, “I increasingly appreciate, on a deep emotional level, the virtues of genuine tolerance and a certain degree of humility” when looking at seemingly disturbing things.

My recent re-titling experience, and my friend’s words, hold some lessons for us all:

Don’t pay attention to headlines or titles.  Rather, read what a writer has actually written.

And don’t make an automatic target of people who have made choices different from your own.  Sure, criticize, if you think it’s warranted.  But do so thoughtfully.  In your zeal, don’t jettison menschlichkeit.

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Wedded Bling

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Do the price of an engagement ring and cost of wedding have anything to do with how strong a marriage will prove to be?  Two Emory University economists recently studied that question. They noted that the multibillion-dollar wedding industry sends the subliminal message that large amounts of money spent on getting married can help assure successful marriages.  However, the researchers found, the evidence suggested that, if anything, relatively inexpensive weddings are associated with lower likelihood of divorce.

Correlation, it is famously and accurately said, does not necessarily imply causation.  It has been noted, for instance, that per capita consumption of cheese in the U.S. correlates closely with the number of people who died by becoming entangled in their bedsheets.  And mathematical proficiency generally correlates with shoe size (children’s feet, after all, being smaller than those of adults).

So it’s wise not to put too much emphasis on the recent research, which was based on a survey of nearly 3,400 people who answered 40 questions, much less to extrapolate from it to the observant Jewish community.

But still.

The researchers’ conclusion – “We find that marriage duration is either not associated or inversely associated with spending on the engagement ring and wedding ceremony” – does seem sensible, and correlates well, I’d venture to say, with many people’s experience.

Baruch Hashem, the divorce rate in the Orthodox community is nothing like what it is in the larger society.  But, sadly, it seems to be higher than it’s ever been; and there is widespread perception, if not clear evidence, that, Rachmana litzlan, it is growing.

And so, whether or not the recent Emory study holds any real-world meaning for us, it might certainly serve as a spur to thinking about chasunah and gift-related excesses, which we cannot deny exist within our community as well.

Most of us have attended a wide range of chasunos, some modest, others less so, and others even more less so.

This is only a personal observation, of course, but my enjoyment of a simchah has never had any relationship whatsoever to the presence or absence of a wet bar, number (or dearth) of cooked dishes at the reception/chassan’s tish, variety of courses at the meal or number of musicians in the band.

In fact, when things were “fancy,” I often enjoyed the chasunah less, pained in my heart by what struck me as a wanton waste of money; and in my ears, by the decibel overkill.

Now, there may, of course, be perfectly valid reasons to host a lavish simcha rather than a simpler one.  Like the need to impress business contacts, to satisfy the mechutanim, or to create jealousy in others (okay, okay, scratch that one).  But one thing is certain, at least to me: Excess spending does not somehow create an enjoyable simchah.  Or, it’s safe to say, if only from reason alone, healthier marriages.

As to rings, baruch Hashem, neither our daughters or daughters-in-law had any insecurities about diamond size or flawlessness or clarity (or any of the other creative “chiddushim” invented by the diamond industry – itself based on the fiction that diamonds are somehow inherently important to a shidduch).  I think that any of them would have happily accepted a cubic zirconia ring, a lovely replacement that, were I king of the world, I would insist upon for all my subjects’ engagement gifts.

I might well be accused of holding such opinions because my wife and I, having been privileged to marry off eight children so far, boruch Hashem, always opted (as a matter of necessity – but with no embarrassment or regrets) for the most simple gifts and affairs available.  We went for one-man bands (except in one case, where mechutanim were close to a bandleader and wanted to honor him with the job), no wet bar, limited reception food and simple seudah fare.  When a “takanos hall” – a wedding hall that subscribed to the call of Gedolim to keep simchos simple, and insisted that its patrons hew to a list of clear limitations – was available, that was what we chose.

But the simchos were beautiful, as have been, baruch Hashem, the marriages that began at each.  If any guest was disappointed at not having enjoyed a fine scotch before the chuppah or by not being regaled by a horn section or offered a choice of main course, well, I imagine he’s gotten over it by now.

The chasunos all shone.  But the shine came from faces, not silverware.

© 2015 Hamodia

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