The Zionist Conspiracy
Monday, February 28, 2005
Siyum Hashas and the Academy Awards
Whatever one thinks about the Siyum Hashas, it is an event at which many of the world's leading rabbis join together in celebration.
L'havdil (in differentiation), the Academy Awards is an event at which many of the world's leading actors join together in celebration.
One of the customs at the Academy Awards is to pay tribute to leading entertainment figures who have passed away in the year since the previous Oscars.
The last Siyum Hashas was in 1997, and I think it is appropriate to think about the number of leaders who have passed away since then. I do not mean to be flippant; this is a sobering reminder of how much spiritually weaker we have become in a relatively short amount of time.
In no particular order, here are some of the leading figures in the Torah world who we have lost since the last Siyum Hashas:
Rabbi Avrohom Pam, zt'l
Rabbi Elazar Schach, zt'l
Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, zt'l
Rabbi Nachum Bulman, zt'l
Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, zt'l
Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt'l
Joseph Kaminetzky, zt'l
Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik, zt'l
Tomorrow night is the Siyum Hashas, the completion of the daily study of all 2711 pages of the Talmud that is celebrated every seven and a half years. The main event will be held at Madison Square Garden and at Continental Airlines Arena (the only time this year that Continental Airlines Arena will be filled to capacity), with satellite hookups around the world.
I won't be able to attend due to parental responsibilities. I did attend once before, the last time the Talmud was completed, in September 1997. I even missed the Jets game that day - a win against the Bengals back in the day of Neil O'Donnell and Adrian Murrell - in Bill Parcells' first season as Jets head coach.
I joined the daily Talmud study for a few months around 1999, before dropping out. It takes a lot of discipline to spend 45-60 minutes each day in the early morning or after work at night learning Talmud, apparently more than I had.
In the yeshivas I attended - which I don't think are atypical in the U.S. - Talmud (specifically gemara) was almost the exclusive focus of study from 9th grade on. In high school, study commenced at around 9 following morning prayers and breakfast, continued until lunch at 12:45, and then resumed from 1:30 until 2:30, before afternoon prayers, following by secular studies, which didn't start until close to 3. And two nights a week, we were required to come back for more Talmud study from around 7 to 9 P.M.
In 1995, I visited a friend studying in the yeshiva in Beit El. On the wall in the yeshiva was the curriculum. It was quite rigorous, and centered around Talmud, but significant time was also devoted to study of Jewish thought, Jewish law, Torah and Navi (Prophets). Overall, about half of the day was spent on Talmud, the other half spread between the other subjects.
In my opinion, the exclusive study of gemara in many yeshivas from high school on is disastrous. The Talmud is not easy to learn, and many students lack either the intelligence, the interest or the attention span to succeed in its study. Yet if someone is lousy in gemara, they are a failure in Jewish study, because that is all that is studied. Some of the same students might be fascinated or at least interested by other areas of religious study, but are not exposed to those areas until adulthood.
For an additional thought on the Siyum Hashas, please see this post.
Sunday, February 27, 2005
My political views on Israel are fairly right-wing (and politically incorrect) by most standards. I think the project of settlement of Judea, Samaria and Gaza is not only inherently legitimate, but heroic and courageous. I strongly opposed Ehud Barak's surrender to terror and offer to divide Jerusalem after Yasser Arafat launched his terror war. I don't like Prime Minister Sharon's plan to destroy 26 communities and get nothing in return, and I reject Sharon's claim that President Bush's vague letter, in which he hinted that a full return to the '67 borders may not be necessary, means or is worth much.
Basically, I'm in the camp of Likud leaders like Uzi Landau and Natan Sharansky, people who are willing to make significant territorial compromises for real peace with a democratic Palestinian leadership committed to a final end to their war against Israel, but who will not give in to terrorists, or offer a lot for nothing in return. People who are very critical of Sharon, but who reject extremist rhetoric against supporters of withdrawal, and who condemn the notion of "mass refusal" by Israeli soldiers opposed to withdrawal.
To most of the world, this makes me a "hardliner." Thomas Friedman of the New York Times would probably dismiss me as a fanatic, and compare me to Iraqi terrorists (to whom he has compared "settlers").
In some portions of the American Orthodox community, however, this makes me a hopeless, naive leftist. The fanaticism of some of these people - yes, they really are fanatical - is sad. Some of these people haven't visited Israel since the terror wave that began in late 2000, but of course, this won't stop them from demanding that Israel never cede an inch and expressing vitriol toward any Israeli leader who disagrees.
Of course, it's not too hard to express these views when it's not your son who is going off to Gaza or Jenin next month.
The latest nonsense comes from Isaac Kohn in this week's Jewish Press. Reacting to Sharon's statement that he had to hire guards to protect his late wife's grave from desecration threats by Jewish extremists, Kohn goes haywire, expressing his "revulsion" and writing that Sharon is engaged in an "onslaught against all that Judaism stands for."
Kohn insists that Sharon is a liar, that no threats were ever made against Lilly Sharon's grave. After all, "Judaism has set an air of reverence over the eternal resting place of any Jew. No Jew whose heart is permeated with Torah values and teachings would ever so much as entertain the ugly thought of desecrating a grave."
I suppose this is why - to our deepest shame - an observant Jew shot and killed Prime Minister Rabin. Perhaps Kohn would argue that a "Jew whose heart is permeated with Torah values and teachings" might murder another Jew, he just wouldn't "ever so much as entertain the ugly thought of desecrating a grave." But then, that wouldn't explain the disgusting incidents in which observant Jews urinated on Rabin's grave, would it?
Nearly a decade has passed since Rabin was murdered. After that horrific event, many have tried to moderate their stance to their political other, to understand that people of good will can have a different point of view. But a few have simply become more fanatical, spewing hatred from the comfort of their Brooklyn or Long Island perches.
The time has come for the decent majority among us to vomit out the few crazies in our midst. Otherwise, if G-d forbid, another political murder befalls us, we will have no right to deny moral responsibility.
Daniel Schifrin On Orthodoxy, Satire And Sociology
In a column in the current issue of The Jewish Week, Daniel Schifrin writes that "the uniformly negative response to Wendy Shalit's" Times Book Review column is missing "an acknowledgement of the partial correctness of her claim: That by and large, Orthodox Judaism is more often the focus of wicked satire than fulsome praise."
Schifrin then bashes Shalit for purportedly assuming that readers of Jewish fiction are "superficial" and says that Shalit fails to see that some of the anti-Orthodox material is "meant to be satirical" as well as their "sociological point."
I doubt that most readers of Jewish fiction (especially the chic lit books that were among Shalit's targets) are as sophisticated in their reading of these books as Schifrin thinks they are. This doesn't mean that they are "superficial" but I doubt that they are looking for some deep "sociological point" while reading Tova Mirvis. My wife - who spends much of her reading time pouring through pediatric journals - has read some of the books Shalit was critical of, and sees them, essentially, as a quick diversion. My guess is that most readers of these books are similar.
Further, one wonders whether Schifrin feels that all Jews should be satired for "sociological" purposes, or only the Orthodox. As Shalit asked in her response to critics: "Suppose there is a new genre in American Jewish literature, in which Reform Jews are vilified regularly... a gay Reform rabbi who seduces younger male congregants... idealistic college coeds who want to escape Reform life, but are daunted by the prospect of learning Hebrew, so they are trapped and pose for Playboy instead... And suppose further that these novels are a bit short on character development, that they are primarily driven by page after page of weirdo Reform characters... How would we feel about such novels?"
Would Schifrin write that while indeed anti-Reform, these novels should not be taken "superficially", that the absurdity of the characters is mere "satire" needed to offer a "sociological point?" I don't know, and it's all speculation, but would be interested in his response.
Friday, February 25, 2005
Bring Back Laveranues
ESPN is reporting that the Jets and Redskins are discussing a trade that would bring Laveranues Coles back to the Jets in exchange for Santana Moss.
I like Moss, but he's not as good as Coles. More importantly, Chad Pennington and Laveranues Coles had tremendous chemistry in their season together; indeed, Pennington hasn't been the same since Coles left as a free agent after the 2002 season.
The possible hitch is that the Redskins have cap problems relating to the huge $13 million signing bonus they gave Coles (which caused the Jets to let him go).
Bottom line: If Washington finds a way to solve their cap issues, the Jets must get this trade done.
The only downside to the Jets getting this deal done is that next year's Super Bowl is not in Miami, Pasadena, or a similar nice vacation spot, but Detroit. Who wants to go to Detroit in early February?
UPDATE 2/26 8:40 P.M.: ESPN now reports that the trade is dead. Apparently, the Jets backed away after Coles' agent informed them of his demands for a bigger contract and threatened a hold out if he didn't get one.
Hopefully this is a temporary hitch and things will get back on track. If not, the Jets are right not to give Coles more money. Coles is a perfect fit, and it would be a shame for this deal to fall through. But he already makes a lot of money, and due to the salary cap, the Jets are going to have a hard time retaining some key free agents.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Neturei Karta In Beirut
The latest outrage by the human vermin known as Neturei Karta is an appearance in Beirut by "Rabbi" David Weiss, who proclaims:
"Arab leaders who cooperate with Israel and established ties with it committed fatal mistakes ... We tell them, Judaism is different from Zionism.
"The Palestinian people are a victim of Zionism which lacks any morality and which has ignored the existence of the Palestinians and their rights."
Weiss said he would be willing to live in a Palestinian state "but we refuse to live under the umbrella of the Zionist rule."
Following the liquidation last year of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin by heroic IDF soldiers, Weiss eulogized Yassin in New York. As Al-Jazeerah - Weiss' news outlet of choice, perhaps - reported, Weiss referred to "the tragedy that has taken place", talked of "the exceptional attributes of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin", and prayed that "the dream of Shaikh Yassin come to fruition ... the speedy and peaceful dismantlement of the State of 'Israel' - its transformation into a Palestinian sovereignty."
Last week, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harari - a foe of Israel but someone I believe to be less contemptible than Weiss - was murdered in a car bomb in Beirut. One could hardly be blamed for praying that while in Beirut, Weiss experiences a similar fate.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
Modern Orthodoxy's Ideas
Last month on Cross-Currents, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote a piece describing the purported pros and cons of the modern and charedi worlds.
The post stated - almost in passing - that the charedim "have really defeated the [modern orthodox] on the battlefield of ideas."
I don't consider myself either modern or charedi, but to the extent one is going to divide the observant world into these two simple categories, it seems to me that saying that the modern have lost on the battlefield of ideas is unfair and inaccurate.
First, within the bounds of normative traditional Jewish thought, I think there is room for more than one hashkafah (religious ideology). Someone who strongly identifies as charedi won't agree with someone who sees himself or herself as modern and vice versa, but each could agree that the other's views are legitimate. So to say that the modern have been defeated "on the battlefield of ideas" is unfair, especially since Rabbi Feldman never offers a reason for this conclusory statement.
Second, and probably more importantly, I don't believe modern Orthodoxy's shortcomings relate primarily to its ideas. Assuming that Rav Soloveitchik and other leading non-charedi rabbis of the last half century are labeled as modern, modern Orthodoxy's ideas are sound. And many of these ideas have won on the battlefield, such as support for the State of Israel, secular education, and increased Judaic study - in whatever form - for observant females. Large numbers of moderate charedim agree with, and have emulated, these ideas.
The problem that "modern Orthodoxy" has is not in its ideas, but in the implementation of these ideas by its adherents. People are flawed, and too many people - not all, of course - who identify as modern think being modern means being lenient, rather than following the path of Rav Soloveitchik, who they invariably cite - often hypocritically - as their religious guide.
Stupid Poll Of The Week
Let's make that stupid poll of the 21st century.
The Jewish Week and The Jewish Press both have long features about "new demographic data" claiming that there are 378,200 Orthodox Jews in 100,000 Orthodox households in New York City, Westchester and Long Island, three out of four of which are "modern Orthodox" with the other 26 percent charedi.
The "study" was conducted by Jacob Ukeles, who The Jewish Week says is "a leading demographer."
Assuming that the "study" adequately represented chasidim in Boro Park and Williamsburg - something quite unlikely - it remains that the poll is beyond amateurish. A sixth grade student - whether in a charedi yeshiva or in a modern day school - could do a much better job.
The "study's" sole "litmus test" for determining whether someone is charedi or modern is whether one thinks a college education is "very important." That's it. Apparently, 3/4 of respondents said that college is important, they were put in the modern category, and that was that.
In my family, me, my parents, and my three siblings all have graduate degrees, and I believe that all six of us would consider college to be important. Some members of my immediate family would identify as charedi, others, particularly me, would reject having to be placed into a silly category in which one is labeled either "charedi" or "modern." I don't think any of my immediate family see themselves as "modern." But it doesn't matter, we're all "modern", because Jacob Ukeles' "study" has concluded as such.
The Ukeles "study" is truly moronic. Yet while both The Jewish Week and The Jewish Press quoted critics of the "study", The Jewish Week piece didn't even mention that the "study" was based on one stupid question until the article's 17th paragraph, with paragraphs 1 through 16 devoted to a celebration of modern Orthodoxy's upset victory.
Unfortunately, Avi Shafran of Agudah told The Jewish Week that the absurd litmus test seemed sound. Rabbi Shafran and Agudah apparently would like to convince themselves that only the modern see college as important, further evidence of the growing disconnect between many ordinary charedim and their purported leaders.
One aspect of the Ukeles "study" that was not questioned is the notion that there are 378,200 Orthodox Jews in New York City, Long Island and Westchester. Considering that New Jersey includes large observant communities in Teaneck, Englewood, Passaic and Lakewood, among other towns, the numbers in the Ukeles "study" suggest that there are far more observant Jews in the New York area alone than some previous assessments have claimed are in the entire country.
My father is quoted in both articles, though I have not yet spoken to him about the Ukeles "study." I find it hard to fathom, however, that anyone with common sense could fail to see the true idiocy of this "poll."
I have not recently posted in detail about the impending destruction of the Jewish communities in Gaza. This is not due to lack of interest on my part, but because I have previously posted in detail on the subject and do not wish to be repetitive.
I think, however, that it is now appropriate to state my general thoughts on the matter:
1. In the 2003 election campaign, Amram Mitzna advocated unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Ariel Sharon derided Mitzna for this. Sharon therefore does not hold a mandate to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza.
2. When Abu Mazen was appointed prime minister of the Palestinian Authority later in 2003, Sharon failed to offer any significant concessions. Why didn't he offer then to dismantle the three isolated Gaza settlements in return for a PA war against Hamas? Even though the PA would not have actually cracked down on the terrorists, Sharon would have gained political capital.
3. According to Dov Weisglass, Sharon's senior adviser, the decision to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank communities was made in November 2003, after several prominent IDF veterans criticized government policy in the territories.
Reversing decades of pro-settler policy in such an immediate manner strikes one as a decision of political expediency. This is particularly the case given that (i) at the time Sharon was facing possible indictment for corruption and (ii) it was Sharon himself who is responsible for many of the Gaza communities.
4. Despite building the Gaza settlements, Sharon has never explained why they now must be dismantled. Was he wrong before? Might he be wrong now? Have political or demographic circumstances changed? He hasn't said.
5. Instead of a national address to Israelis, Sharon announced the decision to withdraw from Gaza in an interview requested by Sharon with Yoel Marcus of Haaretz. Prior to that interview, Marcus, along with most of the rest of Haaretz's staff, was strongly critical of Sharon. Now Marcus champions and lauds him.
The manner in which the withdrawal was announced was juvenile. Can anyone imagine President Bush announcing a major policy shift - perhaps something like a withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia - in an interview with Frank Rich of the New York Times, and then simply refusing to answer questions about the decision?
6. In early 2004, Sharon did state that while Israel would withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank communities, it would "strengthen" its presence in other parts of the territories. However, Israel has now decided that its security fence will only encompass 6 percent of the West Bank, not 16 percent as originally decided. As a result, even if all the territory within the fence becomes Israel's permanent borders (far from a sure thing), Israel will retain only a very small amount more than Ehud Barak agreed to cede in early 2001 at Taba.
7. In April 2004, Sharon announced that a referendum would be held among Likud members to decide whether or not Israel would withdraw from Gaza. The results would be binding, Sharon insisted.
8. After losing the referendum in a landslide, Sharon changed his mind and declared the referendum non-binding. He said that an alternative plan would be formulated.
9. The alternative plan turned out to be identical to the original plan. Yet Sharon insists on going ahead with the plan without a referendum or new election.
10. When Sharon feared that he would lose a cabinet vote on his plan, he simply fired two National Union ministers who were opposed to the plan. Later, he fired Uzi Landau and other Likud ministers and deputy ministers who criticized him.
11. With Arafat dead and Abu Mazen leading the PA, had Sharon waited a year to announce his willingness to withdraw from Gaza, he likely could have demanded - with strong international support - significant reciprocal concessions. Now, the destruction of Gaza is a given, and the world is demanding to know what concessions will come next.
12. I understand the Bush Administration's support for dismantling of settlements, which may help U.S. interests in the Arab world. I'm tired, however, of Condoleeza Rice's constant glee and excitement on the matter. More frustrating is the failure of Jewish Republicans and other Bush supporters who are also opponents of the Sharon plan to say anything even in polite protest of the lack of sensitivity by Rice and others toward the Gaza residents.
13. I visited several of the Gaza communities during succos in 2003. Despite my own personal feelings of support for the residents of Gaza and my pain at the prospect of their communities and life's work being destroyed, I do have strong doubts as to the long-term viability of the Gaza communities. Political, security and demographic realities suggest that they cannot be permanently retained. Had Israel's strategy been to build in Gush Katif and annex part of that area to expand the Ashkelon region, it might have been a success. But too many of the settlements are surrounded by Khan Yunis, and the number of IDF soldiers required to protect the Jews living there may be too high.
14. While we should feel free to express our opinions, those of us living outside Israel should be very cautious in the manner in which we express our position on the ultimate resolution of this issue. The matter is complex, with various costs and benefits. When neither you nor a close relative is serving in the IDF, it is convenient to take a hard-line position. Similarly, when all you know about the Gaza settlements is based on what you read in the Times, you should be reticent in calling for them to be eliminated.
15. In light of the above, a decision to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank and to dismantle the settlements there has legitimate basis. However, I lack confidence in Sharon's decision to dismantle the Gaza and northern West Bank communities, and do not believe that the decision and the manner in which it is being implemented are consistent with democratic norms. Therefore, a referendum should be held, with the Israeli people deciding.
16. In reality, however, regardless of whether a referendum is held and the results of a referendum if one is held, the die is cast, and these communities do not have a long-term future. The damage to their status is irreversible. Therefore, the main focus of the struggle by those who support retention of parts of Judea and Samaria should be ensuring that Israel is not forced back to (or very near) the '67 borders, as current trends suggest is happening. Otherwise, next year at this time, the discussion will be about the future of Beit El and Ofra, communities that a few years ago were part of the consensus and now may be among the next on the chopping block.
El Al's Cynicism
Today's Haaretz reports that thousands of tourists from the U.S. are unable to come to Israel for Passover because El Al has artificially raised prices without adding sufficient flights to its schedule. Worse, the Transportation Ministry refuses to increase flight allotments to El Al's competitors, even though El Al is being privatized.
El Al acts in the same manner during the summer and the Succos holiday. Indeed, I went to Israel for Succos each of the last two years, and both times, after struggling to find seats, paid a ridiculously high amount for the flight, since El Al has a virtual monopoly on the NY-Tel Aviv route (though I believe that in recent months Continental has resumed daily flights).
Why not moderate the price increases and increase the number of flights? There's really no good reason. When tourism was at its peak in the late 90's, El Al had several flights a day, so it has available aircraft. It's just typical stubbornness and callousness, nothing else.
The truth is that the average observant family, already burdened by massive housing and tuition expenses, cannot afford to go to Israel more than once every few years.
In this regard, two years ago, speaking on Passover at the Eden Roc in Miami Beach, Rabbi Binny Friedman strongly criticized American Jews who failed to go to Israel. I challenged Rabbi Friedman, explaining that while those who choose to vacation in Miami rather than Jerusalem were fair game, and that the failure of most Jews to visit Israel during the Palestinian terror war was indeed an embarrassment, the reality is that most observant Jewish families can't afford to spend Passover or Succos in either of those places. Rabbi Friedman completely dismissed my argument, laughing that he would buy a plane ticket for anyone who couldn't afford one, apparently operating on the assumption that those spending Passover at the Eden Roc are not far more wealthy than the typical observant Jew.
(Incidentally, I was not staying at the Eden Roc; when in Miami Beach we usually stay at a modest hotel like the Best Western or Days Inn.)
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Robert Kraft In Israel
As a Jets fan, I've never been a fan of Patriots owner Bob Kraft, particularly after the manner in which Bill Belichick was stolen from the Jets in early 2000.
Nevertheless, as an alum of Columbia Law School, I did appreciate Kraft's building of the Kraft Center For Jewish Life at Columbia. Until the Kraft Center opened, including when I was at Columbia, the facilities available to Jewish students for prayer services and study were truly woeful.
Today, Kraft is in Israel to donate funds for enhancements to the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem. The Kraft Stadium is used by various groups playing American football in Jerusalem, including yeshiva students in Israel for the year. It is the only American football field in Israel.
Steve Leibowitz is president of American Football in Israel, which organizes and runs the flag-football league whose teams compete in Kraft Stadium. Leibowitz also edits English news for the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and is a former reporter for The Jerusalem Post. When I started writing - as a 17 year old kid - for The Post in 1990, Leibowitz was very friendly to me. He's an avid Mets and Giants fan who made aliyah in 1973. One morning in the summer of '90, I was walking around Jerusalem's Rechavia neighborhood looking for a place to daven. I ran into Leibowitz, who does not wear a kippa, and he immediately directed me to the Gra shul in nearby Shaarei Chesed where numerous services are held late into the morning.
Sunday, February 20, 2005
Friday Night Miracle On Ice
In honor of the game's 25th anniversary, which falls on Tuesday, ESPN just ran an abridged version of the USA's victory over the USSR in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
I was in second grade at the time, and a severe virus caused me to miss about three weeks of school, allowing me to watch the entire Olympics. I have a pretty good memory of the hockey team's run - including the Sunday morning gold medal comeback victory over Finland - as well as of speedskater Eric Heiden's five gold medals.
I did not see the victory over the Soviets. It was on Friday night, and I found out about the win on shabbos morning when the New York Times was delivered.
Over the years, when the subject came up, I've heard some frum people speak of remembering the victory over the Soviets, about how they'll never forget watching the game. I'm sure these people didn't watch on shabbos, and since they lived on the East Coast, it simply was impossible for them to have seen the game.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
Gary Rosenblatt's Response to Wendy Shalit
In his column in this week's Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt, supporting Tova Mirvis, takes issue with Wendy Shalit's original Times piece. Rosenblatt writes that "I know what it feels like to be marginalized, based on religious observance (or alleged lack thereof) rather than substantive argument." Yet, he then goes after Shalit on grounds related to her religious observance, rather than substantive argument, writing:
"Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Shalit, in her own religious development, went from being a largely uninvolved Reform Jew to a fervently Orthodox baalat teshuvah, skipping a big chunk of modern and central Orthodox life along the way, which makes her - to use her terms - an outsider even when she thinks she's an insider."
I'm not sure why this argument is really relevant, though Rosenblatt is not the first to have made this point. In any event, it is not accurate. During the period that she was a major media figure, Shalit was gradually becoming more observant and only years later went to learn in Israel. It's not true that she suddenly "went from being a largely uninvolved Reform Jew to a fervently Orthodox baalat teshuvah."
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Wendy Shalit's Response
I think Wendy Shalit's response to her critics is more compelling that her original Times piece.
While I don't completely agree with all of her points, and don't feel that observant Jews should avoid criticism of problems in our community, I like Shalit's outspoken and unequivocal defense of Orthodoxy and its adherents, as well as the fact that she's opened up a debate about how observant Jews are depicted in fiction. If the blogosphere is an accurate indication (and it probably isn't), it seems like thinking observant Jews are riddled with angst about Orthodoxy (not that that's all a bad thing). Whether she's a naive BT is open to question, but Shalit's bold arguments are novel and interesting.
One of the criticisms directed toward Shalit is that the authors she criticizes are writing fiction. In her response, Shalit argues:
To be sure, fiction is not sociology, and sometimes a negative slant can enliven a story. But when all your Orthodox characters are cold and dysfunctional, and unlike anything this group understands itself to be, then I think one must ask what else might be going on ... literature matters. 18th-century French literature was a reflection of, and shaped what became, modern society's dominant notions of the social contract. How is the treatment of Orthodox Jews in fiction affecting our society and particularly, the rest of the world's perception of the Jews? I don't pretend to know the answer to this, but I feel we should be permitted to ask the question.
Shalit's argument brings to mind an infamous February 2000 review in the New York Times of Kadosh, an anti-Orthodox movie by Amos Gitai, a secular Israeli who proclaimed that in writing it he was "voting against the religious right." Stephen Holden, reviewing the film, wrote about a marriage in Kadosh of a charedi couple:
Their wedding night scene would be the stuff of grotesque comedy if it weren't so cruel. After hastily removing as few clothes as necessary, Yossef climbs on the bed, pulls the covers over them and without so much as kissing his bride, or even looking her in the face, brutally lunges at her as she screams in agony. Later, when he suspects her of infidelity, Yossef goes ballistic and viciously beats her with a belt.
Just fiction, right? But then Holden, referring to "the profound and shocking misogny" of the charedi world, continued:
The sort of oppression endured by the women in 'Kadosh', of course, is not limited to ultra-Orthodox Jews. It is just as virulent among Moslem fundamentalists and extreme sects in other religions. At its heart is a fear and loathing of sex that originates largely from a primitive notion of women's bodies as essentially unclean.
In other words, Holden, in reviewing Kadosh, a work of pure fiction, took the film's negative depiction of its charedi male lead, and charedi life generally, as an absolute fact.
At the time, many observant Jews were furious, though much of the objection fell on deaf ears.
There has been almost universal adulation of Arthur Miller in the wake of Miller's passing last week.
When I moved from Boro Park to the Upper West Side in late 1997, a time that I was much younger and wealthier, I began attending a lot of Broadway plays. In the spring of 1998, I was very excited when A View From The Bridge, written by Miller in the 1950's, was revived. The play was extraordinary, and won Tony awards for best revival of a play and best actor (Anthony LaPaglia). Allison Janney, now known for her Emmy Award winning performances on The West Wing, was brilliant and also was nominated for a Tony.
LaPaglia, incidentally, is to star in a film version of the play, which I'm sure will be superb.
The next year, Death Of A Salesman was revived. It too was quite memorable and resonant, though probably not as good as View From The Bridge, even if more noteworthy.
Since then I've seen several other Arthur Miller plays, such as The Price. These plays were generally pretty good, but nothing special. And truthfully, aside from Salesman and View From A Bridge, I can't think of another Miller play that can be considered a classic. The Crucible is deemed by some to be a third Miller classic, but it really is not on the level of the others.
This is not to suggest that Miller is not a great American playwright, but given that only two (or at most three) of his plays are essential, I believe that a more balanced critique, based upon Miller's entire body of work, would be welcome.
NHL In Ruins
I don't have time to post in detail about the end to the NHL season, despite significant concessions by the players. For now I'll simply say that Gary Bettman's reign as commissioner has been a disaster and that he will have to be replaced if the league is to avoid becoming as irrelevant in the U.S. as is professional soccer.
I would like to post about this in more detail, as well as about (1) Wendy Shalit's response to her critics; (2) Modern Orthodoxy; and (3) Arthur Miller. Unfortunately, requirements at work and home prevent me from doing so at this time.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
In today's New York Times Week In Review, Steven Erlanger writes:
"Settlers now account for some 7 percent of Israelis, and about half of those settlers are religiously and ideologically motivated. Many Israelis admire them, even though 72 percent of Israelis consistently say they are willing to dismantle nearly all settlements to reach a real peace."
The 7 percent number - which comes to about 400,000 people - includes those living in post-1967 Jerusalem neighborhoods like Ramot, Ramat Eshkol and French Hill, which nobody in Israel considers to be settlements. There is close to zero percent support for dismantling these neighborhoods.
As for the communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, I have never seen a poll in which 72 percent of Israelis expressed support for dismantling "nearly all settlements." There may be support of around 72 percent for dismantling the Gaza settlements and many isolated settlements that are deep in Samaria, but at the same time there is large-scale support for permanent retention of the Gush Etzion and western Samaria blocs, as well as Maaleh Adumim, Givat Zeev and other communities near the '67 borders.
On a related note, the widespread idea that only a small number of Israelis oppose the Sharon plan to destroy the Gaza settlements is false. In a poll taken last week, in which Israeli Arabs were included, 54 percent support the Sharon plan, 31 percent are opposed, and 15 percent are undecided.
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Eagles Clock Management
Anyone who saw Sunday's game is aware of the Eagles' terrible clock management late in the 4th quarter, when they went into full huddles despite trailing by 10 points.
It suffices to say that apparently Herman Edwards is not the only head coach who is absolutely clueless about basic game management.
It is inexcusable that people who are paid huge sums of money to coach football cannot grasp the most elementary elements of the game.
With three Super Bowl victories, it's no coincidence that Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn't have the clock management problems of Edwards or Eagles coach Andy Reid.
Monday, February 07, 2005
Modern Orthodoxy and the Divinity of the Torah
Luke Ford had a very interesting interview last week with novelist Tova Mirvis. Mirvis was criticized by Wendy Shalit in Shalit's Times Book Review piece last Sunday, and responded in the Forward.
Luke is a superb interviewer, and successfully lulled Mirvis into a discussion of her personal beliefs. She told Ford:
"I am an Orthodox Jew. I've been part of a Modern Orthodox community my entire life. I went to [Jewish] day school, yeshiva high school [Orthodox], spent a year studying in a yeshiva in Israel. I've davened every week in an Orthodox shul and I send my kids to an Orthodox day school."
Later, she and Ford had this exchange:
Luke: "Do you believe in God?"
Luke: "Do you believe God gave the Torah?"
Tova: "I do. I think it's more complicated... I don't believe in the fundamentalist notion that he wrote it down and handed it off but I believe in an evolving dynamic chain of tradition. It has formed my life. It is complicated. I would guess that I don't believe in it in the same terms that Wendy Shalit does."
Luke: "How about in the terms that Maimonidies formulates in his eighth of thirteen required beliefs [the Jewish prayer Yigdal, which translated into English reads: 'I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah now in our hands is the same one that was given to Moses, our teacher, peace be upon him.']"
Tova: "Remind me."
Luke: "That the Torah is divine. That every word of it is divine. And if a person was to say that a single word in the Torah is not divine, that that is outside permitted belief."
Tova: "I don't know. That's a good question. Part of my Orthodoxy is that you don't have to know all the answers. I don't know. It's a good question."
I am sure that if asked, many people who identify as modern Orthodox would answer Luke's question about whether G-d gave the Torah in a manner similar to Mirvis' response. They certainly do not see themselves as holding heretical beliefs; most simply have never given serious thought to the issue, and would give an answer that sounds moderate.
At the same time, while there have been and likely are today a few rabbis who accept some form of biblical criticism, I believe that there is little theological difference among the large majority of contemporary Orthodox rabbis - ranging from Satmar to Edah - on the subject, with all sectors of Orthodoxy affirming the Torah's absolute divine origin.
I don't know what the implications of this are, though I suppose that for one thing, it's that many modern Orthodox Jews who recite the Yigdal prayer every morning do not believe in the contents of that prayer.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
Super Bowl Prediction
The Eagles will be much more competitive than many expect, but I've got to go with New England in a close one, 23-20.
Friday, February 04, 2005
Boxing great Max Schmeling, best known for being defeated by Joe Louis in 1938 at Yankee Stadium, has died at the age of 99.
Hitler's Nazi regime attempted to trumpet Schmeling as proof of Aryan supremacy, particularly after Schmelling defeated Louis in 1936. However, Schmeling declined to join the Nazi party or fire Joe Jacobs, his Jewish manager. Schmeling also reportedly hid two Jewish boys in his Berlin apartment during Kristallnacht.
Thursday, February 03, 2005
D-Day For The NHL
I expected a long lockout in the National Hockey League, with the ultimate resolution being a deal sometime in January resulting in the implementation of a hard salary cap on terms more flexible than initially proposed by the league. An annual cap of $45 million or 57 percent of revenue, whichever is more, seems like a reasonable solution to me.
That kind of agreement will likely eventually happen, but January has passed and it's clear that for purposes of salvaging even a very short 2005 season, negotiations are now down to the final days, if not the final hours. Over the last few days, it finally dawned on me that there really might be no hockey this year. As bad as they have been over the last seven seasons, I actually miss the Rangers. Since then I've been anxiously checking Canadian websites like TSN.
For the few who still care, let's hope for good news.
"Our school officials contribute to the difficulties facing our youth by being too hasty in ridding themselves of students who don't meet standards. When a student's behavior adversely affects other students, there usually are grounds for expulsion. Not doing well academically is not an adequate ground, a position that I have expressed for many years, but few school officials agree with me.
It is intolerable that one person, usually the principal, has the sole say on who stays and who does not. When the prospect of expulsion arises, there must be a process involving several persons who are competent to decide. I cannot understand why the Orthodox community tolerates the sinful practice of allowing one person to make so vital a decision regarding the life of a youngster. There is no halachic justification for the practice."
At the charedi yeshiva at which I attended high school from 1986-1990, the principal also served as the 12th grade rebbi, and each year about 20 percent of those at the yeshiva during 11th grade would be asked to leave, rather than be allowed to finish their final year of high school in the principal's class. Transgressions resulting in expulsion usually related to things like being caught hanging out with girls or going to a movie one time too many. There were no issues involving drugs in that yeshiva in those days.
The principal was tough with me, primarily because of my interest in sports, which he saw as an absolute waste of time that should be spent learning gemara. He could understand human vice generally, but not the idea that someone could spend hours arguing why Keith Hernandez was more valuable than Don Mattingly.
While I was never a serious candidate for expulsion prior to 12th grade, the principal did almost expel me about a week prior to graduation. He spotted me having an animated discussion with another bochur in the beis medrash, and rushed over to ask the other guy what the discussion was about. "Sports," the other fellow responded. The principal went ballistic, and told me to go home and that I would not be getting a diploma. He asked what was so important that I had to discuss while my open gemara was ignored. I apologized and responded, truthfully, by saying something like: "I was discussing Joe Dumars, a basketball player whose team is playing for the championship. This player's father was on his deathbed as a game was about to start, but he told everyone not to inform him if his father was niftar. He had a very good game and his team won, but it turned out that his father was niftar during the game. Then there was another game two nights later, and he played again and scored a lot of points and his team won again. I couldn't believe that everyone complimented him for playing, like a game is more important than a person's father." The principal smiled and responded that the rebbeim had just been talking about this in the rebbis' room, and I got through the final week of high school without incident.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Respect For Rabbis
I'm absolutely comfortable taking the position that the ban of Rabbi Slifkin's books by a number of charedi rabbis is wrong and should be rejected. The process, in which Rabbi Slifkin was denigrated as a heretic with no chance to explain or respond, was an absolute disgrace. Furthermore, while Rabbi Slifkin's views are clearly outside the charedi mainstream, they are backed up by leading revered rabbis of previous generations and are therefore anything but heretical.
I'm troubled, however, by the manner in which the rabbis who signed the ban are being described on some other blogs. There seem to be few qualms by some about portraying all of these rabbis as crazed and corrupt fanatics.
Admittedly, to some extent, this is the inevitable result of the rabbis' decision to take such extreme and inappropriate action. As I have written previously, a major consequence of extreme decisions like these is that observant Jews will reject rabbinical authority and lose respect for that authority. Once that respect is lost, some don't place limits on what they'll write or say.
If the Slifkin ban had occurred even a few years ago, before any of these blogs existed, there would hardly have been any discussion of it on the Internet. Certainly, 15 years ago there would be much less awareness of, and communication about, the matter.
Conversely, if some of the decisions of gedolim of previous generations were made in this era of Jewish blogs, I wonder what the consequences would have been. For example, gedolim like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Ahron Kotler were recognized as gedolei hador by all observant Jews. No Orthodox Jew would, G-d forbid, have ever personally denigrated these holy leaders.
It is no secret, however, that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote harshly (and certainly politically incorrectly, by today's standards) about issues like the non-Orthodox movements and homosexuality. If they were written today, would Rav Moshe's teshuvas have been instantaneously scrutinized and attacked by J-bloggers? Would the 1950's ban on Orthodox membership in rabbinical bodies with Reform and Conservative rabbis have been analyzed and ridiculed? How about Rav Soloveitchik's psak that one should stay home on Rosh Hashanah rather than listen to the shofar in a non-Orthodox synagogue with mixed seating?
To be sure, none of the leading charedi rabbis today is on the level of the gedolim of the 20th century, and Rabbi Slifkin is not Reform but a frum Jew who has devoted his life to Torah and Judaism.
Still, the rabbis in question include leading roshei yeshiva, poskim and leaders. They were very wrong in the manner in which they treated Rabbi Slifkin. We have a right to say that. But just as these rabbis should have criticized Rabbi Slifkin's books and expressed what they found so objectionable, instead of proclaiming an outright ban, we, the laity, should question and yes, even criticize, these rabbis without resorting to shameful attacks and insults on them.
Times Minimizes Anti-Jewish Attacks By Academics
Today's New York Times has a long article by Patrick D. Healy about Hamilton College's belated cancellation of a lecture by Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who wrote that the victims of 9/11 deserved their fate.
The piece refers to other campus controversies, including the current Columbia investigation into its Middle East department, as well as Harvard's 2002 invitation (later rescinded) to Tom Paulin, an anti-Semitic "poet."
The Times' description of both the Columbia situation and the invitation to Paulin minimizes both situations to an absurd extent.
With respect to Columbia, Healy writes: "a Columbia University faculty panel is now investigating remarks by some pro-Palestinian professors that offended some Jewish students." As for Paulin, he states that "in 2002, Harvard College's English Department canceled a campus reading by a poet who had once referred in verse to the Israeli Army as a "Zionist SS." and had criticized American-born Jewish settlers."
In fact, Paulin told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, that American-born settlers "should be shot dead." Needless to say, even by Times standards, this is quite different from mere criticism.
At Columbia, the issue is not that "some Jewish students" were "offended" by "remarks" of professors. Rather, the charges are that several professors verbally attacked and intimidated pro-Israel students, including, an alleged incident in which instead of responding to a student's question, a professor asked the student, who had stated that he served in the IDF, "How many Palestinians have you killed?" Another student alleges that her questions were ridiculed and she was directed to leave the class, while in another incident, a student defending Israel against a professor's charges that it committed a massacre in Jenin was shouted down by the professor, who stated, "I will not have anyone sit through this class and deny Israeli atrocities."