Monday, December 31, 2007

Dr. Yitzchok Levine Speaks About the State of Secular Studies In Our Yeshivos

Dr. Yitzchok Levine recently spoke at the Talmud Torah of Flatbush on the topic of secular studies in our yeshivos. The title of the lecture is "Why Can't Yankel Read, Write and Do Arithmetic?" I was not at the lecture, but it can be heard online here. A question and answer session followed. I *highly* recommend that anyone who cares about the state of secular studies in our yeshivos listen to the lecture.

In his lecture, Dr. Levine observes something that we all know... that our boys' yeshivos (in Brooklyn, anyway) don't train children in the basic life skills that they need. Fractions, percents and basic math are unknown by a good percentage of bochrim "graduating" from the eighth grade. When he asked one high school student whom he was tutoring what a third plus a half was, the student answered two fifths (he simply added the numerators and the denominators). He could not tell Dr. Levine how many inches were in a foot, how many ounces in a pound or how many feet in a yard. And what's worse, many of these students don't even *care* that they don't know these basic facts. They approach math with a "what do I need this for" attitude?

Heaven forbid you try to teach something like algebra, geometry or trigonometry, subjects that don't have practical applications at an immediate glance -- that's viewed as a complete waste of time. Dr. Levine mentions that when he encounters this attitude, he brings out the Vilna Gaon's sefer Ayil Meshulash, a treatise on geometry and trigonometry. This, he says, usually holds the student for about a week until they respond to him by telling him that either (a) the Vilna Gaon wrote it in the bathroom (showing that the student has no idea what types of bathrooms the Vilna Gaon had in his day) or that he wrote it before he was Bar Mitzvah (and hence there was no bittul Torah). Needless to say, neither objection is factual.

Part of the problem, unfortunately, is that the secular studies department is being undermined by the Rabbeim in the yeshivos themselves. In one case, Dr. Levine tells the story of an acquaintance of his who was a teacher in a yeshiva. The boys in the yeshiva gave him a terrible time. However, the straw that broke the camel's back and which prompted him to finally quit, was that he found out that the eighth grade Rebbi was advising the kids not to attend secular studies in high school. When one boy asked the Rebbi how he would support himself in life, the Rebbi answered that he's going to marry a wealthy girl.

I personally, can back up some of what Dr. Levine says. I, personally, have seen secular studies denigrated by rabbeim as being unimportant and unnecessary. When I was in high school, the rosh yeshiva would, on occasion, pay lip service to the idea that secular studies are important, but we all knew that he was lying through his teeth and that he didn't really believe a word he said. It was well understood that he and all of his staff would get rid of the secular studies in an instant if they could and that they viewed it only as a necessary evil dictated by the state. Sometimes, the rabbeim would state this openly, other times in hints and attitude. But it was well known in the school where the secular studies department stood. And, of course, this attitude was passed on from the rabbeim to the students. I once asked a friend of mine how he would earn a living when he grew up he said "nu, I'll open a store." Opening a store is nice, I suppose, but I'm fairly certain that you still need basic math and life skills to operate a store.

Of course, no one in my yeshiva ever thought of entering the sciences. That's because science, in many black-hat yeshivos is equated with things like evolution which fall outside the pale of traditional Jewish thought. Of course, by not studying science, they were completely closing themselves off from any possibility of a professional career, such as law, medicine or the like, since any undergraduate degree is going to require some basic science courses. Unfortunately, however, the idea exists in much of the yeshivish world that scientists are either (a) engaged in a massive conspiracy to hide the truth of God's existence or (b) are dumber than potted plants and can't even recognize the basic evidence that the Torah is true. Because of these attitudes, the sciences (and all secular studies by extension) are relegated to the garbage heap of knowledge. However, Dr. Levine brings an interesting quote from an article by R. Shimon Schwab, in his essay "The Jews in Galus: How High A Profile." R. Schwab said:

If all the nations of the world (and it is a tendency today to think this way) are depraved foolish and wicked, it is no distinction to be better than those who are depraved, foolish and wicked. That is no basis for praise to the Ribbono Shel Olam. By the same token, gratitude for being given the Torah cannot be meaningful if all non-Torah science is nonsense, if all secular knowledge is without value. What glory is ascribed to Torah knowledge if it's distinction is simply that it is superior to nonsense. To the contrary, Chazal have told us that there is chochma, wisdom, amongst the nations. As a matter of fact, upon seeing a wise non-Jew one pronounces a blessing, praising God for having given of His knowledge to a creature of flesh and blood. But all their knowledge, all their sciences and all their wisdom shrinks into absolute nothingness before the majesty of one kutzo shel yud, one small stroke of the sacred Torah.

Indeed, as Dr. Levine points out, it must be made clear to our students that Torah study is the most important function of a yeshiva. When Walter was entering first grade, there was one yeshiva that we were somewhat impressed with. We ended up not sending him there for a few reasons but my main objection was this: For the first year or two the secular studies would be taught in the morning and the limudei kodesh in the afternoon. This was done strictly for scheduling reasons -- from a practical point of view, I couldn't argue with it. But I felt uncomfortable with this approach -- I feel that the raison d'etre of a yeshiva is to teach our kids Torah. No matter what my sons and daughter will do in life, they will first and foremost be Jews and have to live according to the Torah. It doesn't matter whether they go on to learn full-time, work full-time or find some happy medium in the middle -- regardless of what they do and where they go in life, they have to know that they are Jews and have to know the Torah. As such, I felt it extremely important that a yeshiva have Torah studies first in the morning, sending the message to my kids that their Torah studies are more important than their secular studies.

That doesn't mean, of course, that I think secular studies are unimportant. Anyone who has spent any time reading my blog knows my feelings regarding the acquisition of secular knowledge. In fact, when we were looking for a high school for Walter, we wanted a place that had an excellent Torah studies program AND an excellent secular studies program. We wanted a place that would prepare him for learning after high school at the beis midrash level AND prepare him for college, should he choose to go. Sadly, there was no place that we found in Brooklyn that met those requirements -- and as such, he has a *long* commute to school every day and back. He's not happy about the commute, but he loves the school. He's happy that he's found a place where he can flourish in both departments. And, he's in an environment, where the Rabbeim are not undermining the secular studies department. He's in an environment where the Rabbeim understand and appreciate the value of a good well-rounded education.

So, what can we do to change this situation that exists in our schools? I don't know. I wish I did. Dr. Levine gives some interesting suggestions in his lecture (again, I highly recommend that you listen to it). But I think the main thing we can do is to try to make students realize that there is value in a good education and that we have to make sure that they get the message that knowing the sciences, math, history, etc. help one to be able to learn Torah better.

The Wolf

P.S. Dr. Levine's publications, writings and lectures can be found on his web site.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Get A Life

From this week's (US) print edition of the Yated:

Dear Editor,

In the News Tidbits of the Parshas Miketz edition of the Yated, there was a headline "Brrr, Old Man Winter Has Made His Appearance."

This expression, as well as another commonly used expression, "Mother Nature," is simply kefirah, suggesting that there is another power in the world besides for Hashem. While I know that this wasn't the Yated's intent nor is it the intent of people who use these terms, the Yated, as the Torah newspaper, must be very careful as to how everything in the newspaper is written. Perhaps other people should not use these terms either.

Lechvod Shamayim
Symcha Zylberberg

Saying "Mother Nature" is kefirah??? I find that quite funny since (aside from possibly some pagans -- and even then I'm somewhat skeptical) no one seriously considers that there is an actual power out there named "Mother Nature" or "Old Man Winter." I don't think that there is any Orthodox (or Conservative or Reform) Jew who uses this expression to seriously mean that there is another power out there other than HaShem. The expressions used are just that -- expressions used to anthropomorphize an aspect of nature and the climate. They are not meant to express that the personification of nature has any power at all. I suppose by the same token, the writer would object to the use of words such as "tantalize, "odyssey", "nemesis," "panacea" and others that have their origin in non-Jewish myth.

And, while we're at it, certainly phrases of hyperbole and idioms should be banned on the basis of sheker (falsehood). After all, none of us would ever really "move heaven and earth," "lay down the law," "read someone the riot act," view someone as the "apple of your eye," "cherry pick" arguments, have "egg on their face," or "food for thought." No one among us has "big bucks" (unless they raise really large deer), buys things for "a dime a dozen" or even "makes ends meet." No one really believes that "money talks," no one "pays the piper" (unless you hired a musician) and even the most miserly among us don't "pinch pennies." The richest among us don't have pockets that are any deeper than anyone else, no one truly looks out for "number one" (except maybe a numerologist) and very few of us actually work for a "slave driver," no matter how hard our bosses push us.

And certainly none of us "bring home the bacon."

In other words, expressions and idioms are a normal, everyday part of the English language. If you're going to get upset about expressions that are clearly not meant to be taken literally (and to label them kefirah!!) then you've got to cut out a lot of the English language.

The Wolf

Thursday, December 27, 2007

When Is The Everlasting Torah Not Everlasting?

Can someone please square away for me the contradiction between the ikkar emunah (article of faith) that God won't change His Torah (and that the mitzvos are everlasting) and the statements in the gemara that in the days of Moshiach many of the Yomim Tovim will no longer be observed?

In short, do the 613 mitzvos apply forever or not?

The Wolf

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Punishing Kids...

Yeshiva World is reporting that the daughters of Moshe Aryeh Friedman (the man who recently met with Iranian president Mahmoud Amadinejad) have been kicked out of their school.

I gave my thoughts on this back in February. I still stand by them now.

The Wolf

Monday, December 24, 2007

Hashgachas Chinam?

Last week, I ran into a friend of mine, a well known Brooklyn rabbi, at a supermarket.

"Wolf," he called over to me. "Take a look at this." He handed me a package of barley (ordinary, plain, barley -- not egg barley or anything that was otherwise processed). He showed me that the package had two hashgachos (kosher certifications) -- one by the OU and the other by a chassidishe rav. He then turned the package over and showed me that it stated on it "Not checked for bugs."

OK, if it's not checked for bugs, then why do we need the hechsher to begin with? And not one, but two!!

The Wolf

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Newest Developments In The Frum World

From Yeshiva World News comes today's newest development in the Orthodox Jewish world. The headline from the article reads:

London: Frum Car Gets Carjacked, Woman Injured.

Who knew that there were frum cars?

The Wolf

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Kosher "Cheese"burgers

Yeshiva World points out that Talia's in Manhattan is now offering a kosher cheeseburger on their menu. The cheese is made from soy.

Interestingly, there are comments both in favor and in protest of this offering at a kosher restaurant. Among some of the anti-cheeseburger comments are:

  • do we have to be like goyim in e/t we do!!! we copy the way they dress do we also have to eat what they eat?
  • I think the idea of it is attrocious! as they say “azoi vee s’goisht zich, yidisht zich”

  • You could find a way to kosherize everything. But if it wasnt created
    kosher, leave it alone. You managed without it for the past 5,768 years.
  • This is horrible. Why do we have to copy everything from the goyim, as
    if there isn’t enough food and taavah going on already? Next thing
    they’ll be serving is kosher pig. Uch!
  • classic case of “naval birshus hatorah”

Among the pro-cheeseburger comments we have:

  • if it’s kosher, what’s the problem? There are many baalei teshuvah and
    gerim, I would imagine, who remember what they used to eat before that
    would appreciate it. No one is forcing you to eat it, and anyone who
    has no taste for it will avoid it.
  • Listen, if it’s mutor and will give a yid some parnosso - I’m all for
    it. When you look through the marketing hype - all it is is just
    business. Nu, so what the sandwich has an extra something on it - it
    shouldn’t prevent us from buying it.

Personally, I'm of two minds about this sort of development.

On the one hand, there is little question that such a food is permitted. Assuming the meat and "cheese" are kosher in and of themselves, and there is no dairy in the "cheese," then there is no issue of basar b'cholov (meat in milk) at all. You might have an issue with Maris Ayin (appearing to do something that is forbidden, even if no forbidden act is taking place) but as this becomes more popular, that issue will disappear as well.

I can certainly understand the point that someone who grew up with the idea of a cheeseburger being treif would have difficulty eating it now that it's kosher. I had a similar problem a few years back when Eeees and I went to Eretz Yisrael and a friend of ours took us to the KFC in Jerusalem. I had difficulty eating there (although I eventually did) because, in my mind and upbringing, "KFC" was synonymous with "treif." So, for those who would have difficulty eating a kosher cheeseburger, I would understand a bias on their part against having this product. I, myself, would probably have the same difficulty. Even though my early childhood was in a non-Orthodox home, my parents always kept kosher in the home and while we might have gone out to eat non-kosher food, I don't recall ever seeing them eat a cheeseburger -- and I know that I myself never ate one. As such, I can't see myself eating a kosher "cheese"burger.

That being said, however, I do have to admit that there are some kosher substitutes that I don't have trouble with. For me, my little vice is the kosher "Baco Bits" that you find in the supermarket. I don't know how close it is to actual bacon, but I like the flavor that it gives salads and sometimes, I even eat them by themselves. Shhh! It's my little secret.

But the fact remains that the Baco Bits are just as much a kosher substitute as the faux cheeseburger. I can't explain why I have an aversion to eating a kosher cheeseburger but not to eating Baco Bits. And I suppose that brings us to the other side of the equation.

As we all know, God commanded us not to engage in certain actions. We can theorize the reasons behind these commandments, but in the end, only God knows. One of the things He commanded us not to do is not to eat from the flesh of the pig. Another thing that He commanded us to not do is to eat meat and dairy products together. The question could legitimately be asked: Did He mean for us to not engage in the very action, or did He mean that we shouldn't even learn the behavior that is associated with the action. In other words, does He just not want us to eat cheeseburgers, or does He not want us to learn behaviors that one associates with eating cheeseburgers, even if one does not actually engage in the act. It's this point that (I think) the protesters I quoted above are trying to bring out. Just because we can eat something necessarily mean that we should, and perhaps He had more in mind than simply saying "don't eat this." I suppose this is similar to the old conflict regarding the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law.

In Judaism, it seems that we have both the letter and spirit of the law to contend with. On the one hand, halacha is a highly legalistic system where the difference between the permitted and the prohibited can be very, very small indeed. I think we can all agree that when the letter of the law is being violated, it is within someone's right to protest. In our example, if Talia's were serving actual cheeseburgers, one would be well within their rights to inform the OU of this, and publicize the fact that there is actual meat/milk mixtures being served at the restaurant. We can quibble over whether or not certain sheitel hair comes from an idolatrous practice, but I think we can all agree that if we've established that the hair is actual avoda zarah (idol worship), then it would be forbidden to use it.

And yet, when it comes to the spirit of the law, Judaism is far more nuanced. There are elements within Judaism that maintain that one can still live within the letter of the law and yet be considered a "disgusting person." This concept is summed up by one of the above-mentioned protesters as a naval b'rshus haTorah (a disgusting person within the Torah's permission). Certainly we should try to strive to a higher standard. However, that is something that is up to each individual person to try to accomplish. Every person has to *want* to change for the better -- you can't legislate it and say to a person "you *must* act better." But the bottom line is that the person is still b'rshus haTorah -- he is still within the bounds of what the Torah (and God) wants him to do.

That's not to say that I think that someone who eats a kosher "cheeseburger" is a disgusting person. One *could* argue that he is violating the spirit of the law, but that is an argument that I would reject in this case. The reason, very simply, is that we don't know the spirit of the law in this case. For whatever reason, God decided not to tell us why we can't eat milk and meat together -- so we don't. But because He didn't, we can't extrapolate from milk/meat to cases where we are dealing with imitations. If God had said "I don't want you to have that taste in your mouth..." then you might be able to argue that imitations are just as bad as the original. However, that's not the case here. Here a specific commandment was being given -- and as long as the person follows it, then nothing more can be demanded of him. If you want to think that he should avoid it because there may be some mystical reasons yada yada yada, you are well within your rights, but you can't enforce that on someone else. There are better things that you can do rather than force your standards on someone else. As one YW commentator put it:

There are a million and one ways that you should improve YOURSELF before dumping your “chumros” on others. If you don’t want to eat it… don’t. for those who want it, labriut, eat it. Simple.

The Wolf

Monday, December 17, 2007

Interesting Priorities

I find it very interesting that the people at Torah Temimah were so worried about Rabbi Kolko's parnassah (livelihood) that they refused to fire him even after it was well known to the administration what he was doing to children. And yet, Vien Yeshiva summarily dismisses a teacher simply for putting videos of the class at recess on the YouTube, with nary a thought for his parnassah.

Kind of makes you wonder which is the worse offense...

The Wolf

(N.B. I'm not condoning what the teacher did... I think parents can have legitimate privacy concerns when it comes to videos of their kids on the Internet and I think that some disciplinary action is in order. But I find it interesting that the teacher who directly harms kids is kept on the payroll and in contact with kids for years, whereas the one who causes only a remote possibility of harm gets the axe immediately.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Random Observations From Shabbos

It's amazing how you can get almost twelve hours of sleep on Friday night and still wake up tired.

Twelve aliyos and a maftir are far too much, even if there is an aufruf in shul.

Learning during Chazaras HaShatz is one thing. Learning during Kedusha, OTOH, is just too far, IMHO.

Children shouldn't eat so much by a kiddush that they can't eat the food their mother prepared for them at home by the meal.

I'm predicting that whereas post-Shabbos learning programs are now one hour in length in the deepest winter, by the time my kids have kids, it'll be two hours, as everyone tries to out-frum everyone else.

The Wolf

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Creeping Standards

I saw an interesting bit in the online Yated last week regarding the expansion of the Mehadrin (sex-segregated) bus lines in Israel.

Now, I personally find the idea of having women sit in the back of the bus repugnant. However, I also have to take into account that I am an American and "back of the bus" has an ugly connotation here that does not exist in Israel. Furthermore, I have to keep in mind that we're dealing with people who have a completely different mindset than I do. As such, as long as a substantial portion of the population wants sex-segregated buses and as long as a deal for it is negotiated fairly, I don't have a real problem with it.

However, there was a line in the article that I found quite interesting (bolding mine):

The rabbonim said they have been discussing various matters with Egged and Transportation Ministry representatives in order to make special arrangements that meet halachic requirements.

I know, from personal observation here in New York City, that there is no halachic requirements to have segregated seating in public transportation. Thousands of frum Jews take mixed-seating buses and trains everyday with nary a second thought. No one thinks that they are engaged in anything licentious by taking public transportation and I don't think that any of them ever asked mechila (forgiveness) from God on Yom Kippur for taking public transportation.

If you like, you can certainly argue that having separate seating buses and trains is a halachic extra that one should strive for. (I'll probably disagree with you, but the argument isn't totally out of the ballpark.) You could argue that perhaps a man won't see an immodestly clad woman if the seating is separate (although he does have to face the back of the bus as he walks to his seat, doesn't he?). But one thing that I think we can all agree on is that it is not a "halachic requirement." It never was and still isn't to this day. By calling it a "halachic requirement," all the rabbonim are doing is engaging in creeping standards.

Now, to be honest, creeping standards are not always a bad thing. After all, the standards for health care are far more stringent today than they were a hundred years ago. This didn't happen overnight either... the standards "crept" upwards as the century dragged on. Education standards grew as well -- many more people living today (expressed in terms of a percentage of the population as a whole) have college educations than those living a century ago. Our physical standard of living has increased as well.

Religious standards increase over time as well. A century ago, many Orthodox children in the United States sent their kids to public schools, and taught them Torah subjects after school. Today, most Orthodox children attend yeshivos where they receive at least (and in many cases much more than) a half-day of Torah education.

However, there is an important point to be made with regard to the last item: the increase in standards has been voluntary. Orthodox parents have *voluntarily* sent their children to yeshivos in the United States. No one (to my knowledge) has been forced to. People are still free to send their kids to public schools and educate them in Judaic studies in the afternoons or evenings. True, there are very few who do so, but the option is still there if they want it. No one is being forced to do so.

However, there are times when creeping standards are a bad thing, even if the standards are creeping higher. Sometimes the higher standard comes at too high a cost. There is even a term for this in halacha -- it's called a g'zaira sheain hatzibur yechola la'amod bah -- a decree which is simply too hard for the community to keep. Such a decree, even if it embodies higher standards that, in theory, one should strive for, is null and void, because the cost (and I don't just mean the economic cost) of keeping it is just too high for the community. An extreme example of this might be a decree that all men quit their jobs and learn full time. Such a decree would be impossible for the community to fulfill and therefore, would be null and void.

The needs of the community must be balanced against the desire to have increasing standards of observance. Sadly, however, it seems that the needs of the community are often not considered when decrees are issued; especially when those decrees are extra-halachic. A good example of this, IMHO, was the decree against women's education programs in Israel a few years ago. Not only were these programs shut down, but women who had already completed them found themselves shut out of the education jobs that they were trained for. It's one thing to say that these programs are bad (which is a position that I don't agree with), but it's quite another to then take people who already completed the program b'hetter (while it was permitted) and cause them to be blacklisted because of it. Many women who were probably the sole wage-earners in their families (because their husbands learn full time) were out of jobs. Why? Because of an extra-halachic decree. This is a case where the needs of the community were not considered before the decree was issued. Another example was the ban on certain colors or styles of clothing in Israel. The ruling was clearly extra-halachic - there is nothing wrong with wearing red clothing or certain styles - but there was absolutely no consideration made for merchants who carried such merchandise and bought it in good faith. They were simply told to get rid of it, or face a boycott.

And so it goes. If you want to make a decree on something that is not strictly halacha, then consider the needs of the community -- but also point out that the decree is extra-halachic. But don't try to pass off your own personal chumros (stringencies), such as separate-seating in mass transportation, as halacha. At least be honest about it.

The Wolf

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Living In Moshiach's Times, Part I : Social Interactions

I've been giving some thought to what life will be like after Moshiach's arrival. Almost certainly the world order as we know it will cease to exist and be replaced by some other model. This will probably affect everyone at every level, from the worldwide and national down to the very personal.

Over the next few months, I hope to try to examine some of the issues that we might expect to face, when we are all living according to the Torah in Eretz Yisroel. I think that this kind of examination is necessary simply because the lives that we lived when we last lived under these rules (almost 2000 years ago) are far different than the lives we live now; and I'm not so certain that laws that worked well 2000 years ago can suddenly and swiftly be re-instituted without causing major and drastic changes to the lifestyles that we currently lead.

Today's post will cover the world of social interactions with regard to the laws of tumah and taharah. It's difficult for most of us to imagine living under such a system since these laws have not really been in force for so long and our lives have evolved to the point where we would not be able to observe the societal norms that we do under the laws that once governed us.

The system of social interaction that we currently know would be thrown into chaos if we suddenly had to return to the laws of t'rumos, ma'aseros, kadoshim, tumah and taharah. A simple exercise such as shaking the hand of a person whom you just met would be fraught with all sorts of problems. A kohen would really have problem if he had t'rumah in the house... how could he shake hands with anyone when the person might be an Av HaTumah? His kids can't play with other kids because they might touch kids who are Avos HaTumah and become able to transmit tumah to the t'rumah and other foodstuffs in the house.

Having guests over is another problem. A woman who is a niddah can present a big problem: do you want to invite a couple over to your house when it's possible that the wife (or teenage daugther) of the couple is a niddah? A niddah can transmit tumah to utensils (or people) through touch. Heaven forbid she touches your china bowl or plate that you use for food -- the only way to purify it is by breaking it! Presumably your wife has touched every utensil in your house while she was a niddah -- or would couples need a set of "niddah dishes?"

Another consequence of returning to a system of being careful with tumah and taharah is that the paradigm that we have now, where a woman's niddah status is strictly between her and her husband (and the mikvah lady), would have to be abolished. A woman's niddah status would, as a practical matter, *have* to be known. Can a wife of a kohen risk having her friend touch her because she's a niddah? The friend won't render the kohen's wife a niddah, but she will make her a rishon (rishona?) l'tumah, capable of causing foodstuffs to become tamei. Of course, it's possible for her lie and says that she's a t'maiah for some other reason, but considering the fact that most women (absent any birth control) are usually a niddah close to two weeks out of every month, I think that most people would come to recognize that when a woman says "t'maiah ani" to another person, it usually means she's a niddah, even if she claims otherwise.

Of course, the whole issue of tumah and taharah *really* becomes an issue with regard to formal social functions. Catering halls with constantly have dishes that are tamei, simply by dint of the fact that hundreds (and at some affairs, thousands) of people touch the utensils at such affairs and certainly a good portion of the women (and a percentage of the men as well) are tamei. Even a matter as simple as chairs by a wedding becomes a real big problem. A niddah who sits on a chair causes the chair to become an Av HaTumah. Anyone else who subsequently sits in that chair becomes a rishon l'tumah. Will they have dedicated "niddah chairs?" Well, if we've thrown out the concept of a person's niddah status being private, then I suppose it doesn't make a difference... the niddah women will sit in the "niddah chairs." However, care will have to be taken that the chairs don't get mixed up with each other. Can a kohen (or someone who wants to remain tahor) ever hope to retain his taharah while attending a social function?

Of course, similar problems would exist with any food establishment. Restaurants could not possibly hope to keep an establishment in the confines of taharah. Women cooks would present problems two weeks out of each month and even men would have to stop working if they become tamei. As with the social hall, seating would be problematic as well, as all the benches or chairs would quickly become tamei from a niddah sitting on them. Even if a restaurant owner decides not to admit people that are tamei, how does he enforce this? At least with kashrus, the restaurant owner has the advantage in that he controls all the food coming into the establishment and can hire professionals to ensure that his establishment meets the necessary standards for kashrus. But for tumah? There's no way to enforce compliance and make sure that the establishment remains tahor.

Another consideration is that there are certain types of people who will be, in essence, permanently tamei. In the past, the only such people were grave-diggers. However, in today's world, there are far more people who would be permanently tamei -- doctors (or nurses, or administrators, or janitors, or anyone else) would work in hospitals would just about always be tamei. People who work in funeral homes is another obvious one. Gynecologists are probably always touching women who are niddos and obstetricians certainly are (as a women is always a t'meiah after giving birth). People who work in places that handle non-kosher meat (pet food manufacturers come to mind) also have a problem (although if they only use non-kosher meat from properly slaughtered animals then they should be okay -- but I don't know how much of that is really available).

For most people who aren't kohanim, this probably isn't that big a deal. After all, as a non-kohen, I can eat food that is tamei with no real consequence... it's not like I'm going to want to eat t'rumah or kodashim most of the time. For a kohen, or someone who wants to maintain a tahor standard (or for anyone within a week of the Festivals) all this can cause major chaos. Unless one secludes himself (and his wife and children) from all neighbors and friends, never goes out to eat and never goes to social functions, I don't see how one can reasonably expect to remain tahor.

(Yes, I know that I left out the other sources of tumah that a person can contract, from semen to sheratzim, to all sorts of other items. I tried, however, to keep the post to things on the level of an Av Hatumah or higher -- since that's the level that can impart tumah to other people.)

The Wolf

Sunday, November 25, 2007

100,000 Hits!

Well, it took two and a half years, but Wolfish Musings has finally received 100,000 hits. Of course, it seems like some people get 100,000 hits every time Rosh Chodesh comes around, but then again, they post far more often than I do, so I really can't complain.

Nonetheless, I think the fact that people have logged onto my blog 100,000 times shows that at least some people like what I have to say. I'm very grateful that I have this opportunity to discuss issues that are important to me (and, I believe, most of the Orthodox Jewish community) and I want to thank each and every one of you for logging in and commenting, and hope that you will continue to do so.

The Wolf

P.S. The lucky 100,000th hit came from a Road Runner customer in Flushing, New York using IE at 6:57pm. Thank you!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Jewish Historical Fiction

A while ago, I asked the readers of this blog for book recommendations. I've been slowly going through the list (not in order) and have found some real gems there.

One genre that seems to have caught my attention is Jewish Historical Fiction. I recently read two books that fit that genre and a third about a year ago -- and greatly enjoyed all three.

Chana recommended Sarah by Orson Scott Card. I was a bit wary of this choice. I loved Ender's Game, but felt the other three books in the series (Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide and Children of the Mind) didn't quite measure up to Ender's Game. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try and was pleasantly surprised. It presents the story of Sarah in an interesting fashion, trying to fill in details that the Torah is silent on. For example, he has several chapters dedicated to the time that Sarah spent in Pharaoh's palace (he places her there for a year, something that I'm fairly certain most Jewish commentaries would deny). It also portrays her childhood and her first meetings with Abram and his family. Overall, it's an extremely well-written book.

However, as good as that was, I was blown away by the next book that I read, Rabbi Milton Steinberg's As A Driven Leaf, recommended by "Just Me." As A Driven Leaf is a historical look at the life of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, more commonly known as the heretic Acher. Rabbi Steinberg takes the historical sources and accounts about Acher and weaves them into a tragic tale of his life. Aside from the sympathetic light shown on the character and the intellectual struggles that he goes through, the book also gives the reader a very real sense of what daily life was like in Israel during the period of the Tana'aim. This was truly an excellent book.

About a year ago, a friend recommended James Michner's The Source. The Source is a series of short stories held together in a frame. The frame story centers around an archaeological dig at a tel in Israel known as Makor (the Source). The archaeological team digs through the tel and finds various artifacts from dates ranging from the Israeli War of Independence to over 9000 BCE. Michner then goes and tells the story of each artifact and how it ended up at the tel. I wasn't all that interested in the frame story (I didn't care which one of the archaeologists the girl ended up with), but I found the historical stories fascinating. It was quite interesting watching the society evolve from a simple stone-age cave dwellers, through pagan pantheism to the Judaism of the Patriarchal era and onward through the long history of the land of Israel and to see the differences in the daily lives of the characters over time.

In the end, I highly recommend all three books.

By the way, in case anyone hasn't noticed yet, you can keep track of what I'm reading. Thanks to Psychotoddler, I've become aware of Library Thing and have added it to my blog's sidebar. As I read new books (which happens very frequently), I'll add them to my library. Feel free to click on my library to see my comments on the books I've read.

Lastly, please feel free to recommend more books. :)

The Wolf

(Full disclosure: if you click on the links to Sarah or As A Driven Leaf, or any of the pictures in the Library Thing sidebar and buy something from Amazon, I earn a few cents.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Road To Hell...

I read with interest the Letters To The Editor in this week's Jewish Press. Many of the letters were in response to Rabbi Horowitz's excellent column "You Might End Up Dead." Most of the letters (including one from Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum) supported Rabbi Horowitz's point regarding extremist violence from some Hareidim. However, there was one letter that, while not condoning the violence, seeks to mitigate it. Here's the letter:

I am amused by the sanctimonious expressions of outrage directed against those individuals who attacked that lady on the bus in Israel. While I cannot condone taking the law into one’s own hands, there is an incontrovertible point to be made that one of the Jewish tradition’s important messages to the world is that men and women not married to each other should not mingle with each other.

Rejecting violence is one thing, but let’s not indulge in political correctness at the same time. The young men in question obviously burn with the love of Torah. Their hearts are in the right place, even if they overreacted in their determination to enforce the standards and morality of our Holy Torah.

Yitzchok Melnick


In short, he's saying that the extremists deserve sympathy because "their hearts were in the right place." Sorry, but that's not good enough for me.

Firstly, there is the question of Mr. Melnick's premise -- that men and women should not mingle with one another. While I'm grant him the obvious point that the Torah truly does discourage mingling of the sexes, there is the very significant question of what represents "mingling."

I travel by public transportation in New York City just about every day. There is mixed seating (and standing) in the subways, but I would hardly call what happens there "mingling." Over 99% of the time I have no interaction with any other person in the subways and buses, despite sitting next to or standing in front of them. Certainly no one has *ever* started up anything that could even remotely touch upon what the Torah would legitimately look upon as inappropriate mixing of the sexes. (Now that could be because I'm short, fat, balding and somewhat dumpy looking, but my general impression is that this is the case for most people.) I don't think that sitting next to a woman on the train or bus is any more "mingling" than passing her while walking in the street. If it were, there would be people seeking to have a p'sak passed that riding on the subway is forbidden. To my knowledge, no one has even attempted such a thing. Thousands of Orthodox Jews ride the subways every day without any question of whether or not it is considered "mingling."

In addition, while in this case, the chayal and the woman weren't married to each other (and weren't even companions), I doubt that even if the couple were married (where we can all agree that "mingling" is allowed) that the extremists would have left her alone (provided, of course, that the husband looked like the type who wouldn't/couldn't fight back). I'm fairly certain that had they been in a situation where no one could question the propriety of them sitting together (husband/wife, son/mother, etc.) that the extremists would have made trouble if they could.

Lastly, I want to address Mr. Melnick's point about their "hearts being in the right place." In this, he's dead wrong again. They weren't "enforcing the standards and morality of our Holy Torah" but rather their own extremist version of it. While they may have thought that "their hearts were in the right place" and that they had "good intentions," we all know where that road goes...

The Wolf

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Wolf's Law of the Variance of The Start of Shabbos

It doesn't matter whether Shabbos starts at 4 o'clock or 8 o'clock -- you'll only be ready for Shabbos fifteen minutes before it starts.

Corollary to Wolf's Law of the Variance of The Start of Shabbos:

It doesn't matter whether it's 6:30 or 11:30 -- you'll be zonked fifteen minutes after the Friday night meal ends.

The Wolf

Monday, November 05, 2007

What Is Happening To Us?

There have been several news stories over the past few months (and general trends that are observable over the last few years) that have me wondering where we are going as a people.

Of course, everyone knows about the violence on the buses in Israel. Last year, Miriam Shear was beaten on a bus for refusing to leave a seat that she was legally entitled to keep. This year, we have another story of a woman who was beaten for not leaving a seat (I don't know if this was a "mehadrin" [separate seating] bus for not, but even if it was, there is no excuse for beating someone up over this anyway), and an Israeli soldier was beaten for coming to her aid.

We have stories of vigilantes who go around destroying clothing they find offensive and torching people's businesses for selling items that they find offensive.

We have stories about ever-more extreme steps being taken to separate the sexes to the point where concerts are banned even when they have separate sex seating. We take away almost every opportunity for adult singles to meet each other and then we complain that there is a "shidduch crisis." In some circles, adult singles aren't even allowed to meet until the prospective date is vetted out for every possible detail from the truly legitimate avenues of inquiry to the downright silly questions of tablecloths and loafers versus laces.

We have stories where boys are told to extort large sums of money from their future fathers-in-law, even when they can't afford it, because the yeshiva's prestige is more important than the father-in-law's finances and shalom bayis.

Whereas once we were a people proud to be educated in all areas of endeavor, we now seek to become a people who shun all knowledge outside the daled amos (four cubits) of Torah. Women's education programs were banned in Israel (where, in Chareidi circles, women are the main breadwinners of the household) and those who already completed the program have found themselves blacklisted from employment in their chosen field of teaching. Instead of recognizing that there are matters that can be disputed within Judaism, we now seek to outright ban anyone who doesn't toe the official party line.

We've become a people who are so afraid of anything that isn't 100% Jewish in origin that we seek to ban pizza shops or mobile restaurants who dare to operate in our neighborhoods.

We've fostered an environment where not only is it not acceptable to simply "stay out of trouble," but we've defined "trouble" as not actively learning Torah at any given moment. Sporting activities, day trips and the like are now ruled out in many communities because the boys should be learning Torah and not wasting their time with recreation. My Rav recently refelcted on the fact that when he was a boy, there were Saturday night "fun programs" of sports and the like to keep boys out of trouble; now it's all learning programs, when, in fact, young boys (for the most part) are not really capable of keeping up such a schedule. In his words "they should be playing, not learning."

We've set up a society where everyone scrupulously follows all the rules, not because they want to, or because they think the rules are correct; but because they know that if they don't, it will be held against their children when it comes time for shidduchim. Everyone struggles to keep up with the chumra (stringency) -of-the-month club so that they shouldn't seem like second rate Jews.

We've created an environment where people are no longer trusted to be able to police and think for themselves. Cell phones with text messaging has been ruled assur (forbidden) because people might use it to contact others of the opposite gender. Schools have tried to institute policies where parents cannot have Internet access in their house on pain of expulsion on the pretense that they are protecting the children (which, if it were truly the case, then they should just ban the children's use of the Internet). I'm kind of surprised that no one has tried to say that it's forbidden to sleep in the same house with one's wife when she's a niddah.

We have set up a world where "work" has become a dirty word. For thousands of years, from the time of the entry into Eretz Yisroel until recently, the vast majority of our people earned their living while learning part-time, while the truly exceptional scholars among us were supported by the community in full-time learning. Now, it seems that everyone is *expected* to learn full-time and that people who work because they have to either face an economic reality or because they have the maturity to recognize that they aren't capable of full-time learning are looked down on and discriminated against in shidduchim.

We have a community that judges you more by the material that your yarmulke is composed of than the contents of your neshama (soul) and where the material that your skirt is made out of is more determinant of your observance than how well you actually observe the mitzvos (commandments).

With all this currently happening in our midst right now, I shudder to think at where we'll be in twenty to thirty years if nothing changes.

We need to stop leaning always to the right and return to a centrist position. In the sea, a ship that lists too far to the right or the left will eventually sink. Only a ship that is even and upright can survive the voyage. If we don't, the challenges we face in the next generation will be far worse than those we face now. The "teens-at-risk" and "adults-at-risk" situations didn't happen in a vacuum -- they came about at least partly because people have found that Orthodox Judaism has gone so far to the right that they no longer have a place in it. The further we go to the right, the larger these problems will become as more and more people will feel alienated in their own religion.

The Wolf

Monday, October 29, 2007

Two Wrongs...

Here are some pictures you don't see everyday!!

Jews for Jesus vs. the Chabad messianic movement.

Photos from krint01 on the WeirdJews Livejournal group.

The Wolf


There are occasions during the course of a year which give one reason to look back and reflect on where they've been and what they've done over the last year. In the Jewish religion, we have Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, which afford us the chance to try to right the wrongs we've done in the last year. Among the secular culture, New Year's Day, with its famous resolutions, afford people the opportunity to resolve to make their lives better over the course of the next year.

There is another example of a date that can be used for reflection and resolution -- one that is personal to each individual person. That day is one's birthday. Everyone has a birthday once a year (even those people born on February 29 have a birthday every year, it's just celebrated on March 1st.) and can use it as a chance to look back at the past year and reflect on the upcoming one.

Most Orthodox Jews are well aware of the fact that they have two birthdays, one in the Gregorian calendar and one in the Hebrew calendar. The two calendars sync up on a nineteen-year cycle, so that every nineteen years, most people have their Hebrew and English birthdays together again.*

Today is my birthday, and it is a birthday that is a multiple of that nineteen year cycle. This affords me a chance to not only look back at the last year, but also at the last nineteen, and reflect at where I was in life nineteen years ago, what has changed for me since then, and what things might be like (and what I want them to be like) nineteen years from now.

Nineteen years ago, I was a young kid.
Now I am fully an adult.

Nineteen years ago, I was thin.
Now I'm fat -- although in the interim, I was fat and thin and then fat again.

Nineteen years ago I had a girlfriend with whom I wanted to spend my life, with whom I wanted to raise a Jewish family and with whom I was completely in love.
Now, I'm married to that same girl, have three children, a home of my own, and realize that what I felt then for Eeees was barely an infatuation compared to the feelings I have for her now.

Nineteen years ago, I was in my first year of college.
Today I'm applying to go back to college yet again.

Nineteen years ago, I had four living grandparents.
Today I have one.

Nineteen years ago, I had five aunts who were all happily married.
Today, only two are still married. Two are divorced and one is widowed.

Nineteen years ago, I was helping Skipper (my sister) get through high-school math.
Today, I'm helping Walter (my son) get through high-school math.

Nineteen years ago, I was a firm believer in a young earth, in biblical literalism and an avid follower of the books of R. Avigdor Miller and the like.
Today, I'm an old-earth Creationist. I'm pretty convinced of the truth of evolution, of the age of the Universe and most of the evidence that is used to support it. I'm far more skeptical today than I was nineteen years ago.

Nineteen years ago, I had pictured that I would make my mark writing fiction.
Today my non-fiction is read far more widely than my fiction ever was.

Nineteen years ago, I was just beginning to appreciate the value of Jewish learning. Having come out of a wasted high school career, I was certain that learning Gemara was a waste of time. The beis medrash I was enrolled in back then was slowly beginning to change my mind.
Today, I see immense value in Jewish learning. I see that it can teaches and instructs us in how to live our lives. I have learned to see value and opportunities for understanding in lessons that I might have considered obviously false and worthless nineteen years ago. I've learned to appreciate Midrash for what it is, and not for what others try to make it out to be.

Nineteen years ago, I would have believed anyone who told me about mekubalim, miracles performed by modern-day rabbis and the like.
Today, I'm far more skeptical. I'm not saying that it's impossible, but I've set the bar of proof a lot higher than I used to.

Nineteen years ago, I followed professional baseball passionately.
Today, I follow the game casually. I watched about two or three innings from the just-completed World Series. Other interests have caused baseball to fade into the background. Now, I spend more time on photography, on game design, on my blog and with my family.

Nineteen years ago, I didn't appreciate how much my parents put into raising Skipper and myself.
Today I have a far better understanding of what they went through.

Nineteen years ago, I was conflicted about who I was and what I wanted to be. I wasn't sure if I belonged in the yeshivish crowd, or among the Young Israel crowd, or in any of half a dozen other groups.
Today, I am finally comfortable where I am, in the middle of no particular group.

Nineteen years ago, I could barely learn Mishnayos.
Today, I just recently completed a siyum on all six sedarim of Mishnayos.

Nineteen years ago, I never could have imagined the Internet.
Today I earn my living through it. My life (and just about everyone's) is permanently changed because of it. Sometimes I wonder how I got through most of my life without it.

Nineteen years ago, I was a social wallflower.
Today, I'm still somewhat of a wallflower... but thanks to Eeees, I've become more social over the years.

Nineteen years ago, I was a slow-to-anger kid... it took a lot to get me upset, but when I finally got pushed over the line, I let it all out.
Today, I've learned to control those outbursts so that I don't even let it out anymore. I try to keep it as bottled up as I can and let it out in small doses over time.

Nineteen years ago, I was an Emergency Medical Technician.
Today I have no inclination to go into the medical field at all.

Nineteen years ago, I had just been fired from a job as a Ba'al Kriah for incompetence.
Today, I am a competent ba'al kriah, thanks to a shul where they were willing to work with me and help me to improve my laining.

Ninteen years ago, I thought I knew everything.
Today, not only do I not know everything, but I know that what I know now will be nothing compared to what I'll know in another nineteen years.

Nineteen years ago, I was committed to leading a life of Torah and Mitzvos.
Today, I still have that same commitment.

That's a brief picture of where I was back then and where I am now. I suppose the next question is, where am I going? What will I be like in nineteen years? What do I want my future to be like in nineteen years? Well, let's see, in nineteen years, my kids will all be in their 30s -- far closer to my current age than they their current ages. It's likely that all of them will be parents as well. With HKBH's help, they'll all be living Torah-observant lifestyles, raising their children to do the same.

But what about me? How do I see myself in nineteen years? I'm not sure that I can answer that... and maybe that's a failing on my part. I suppose I see myself having a lot more books in my head, both Judaic and secular. I certainly hope to see myself better able to learn Torah and far more advanced in my Torah learning than I am today. But I also hope to be far better read in science, literature and culture than I am today. I hope to be able to further build my skills in debate and rhetoric so as to be able to better articulate my feelings and ideas. I hope to become a better lomed mikul adam (someone who learns from everyone else).

And I hope to continue falling even further in love with Eeees; and that she does so with me. :)

The Wolf

* Alas, this isn't the case for me. Nineteen years ago, the cycle was off by one day for me. Furthermore, the cycle will again be off for me in 2026, 2045 and 2064. The next time these two dates come together on this cycle is in 2083.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Our Kids... Do We Want To Force Them To Keep The Mitzvos?

Rabbi Horowitz (who has been recently appointed at the "Bloggers' favorite rabbi") wrote a new article concerning teenagers. He makes the point that there are kids who rebel at young ages (13 or 14) and no longer have an interest in being frum. These aren't kids who are getting involved in drugs, alcohol, sex, etc., they just aren't interested in keeping the mitzvos (commandments).

As he says:

I am getting a new wave of parents begging me to speak to their children. The profile is chillingly similar: 13-14 years old boys and girls. High achieving in school. No emotional problems; great, respectful kids from great homes. Well adjusted. They just don’t want to be frum. Period. They are eating on Yom Kippur, not keeping Shabbos, not keeping kosher; et al.

No anger, no drugs, no promiscuous activity. They are just not buying what we are selling. Some have decided to ‘go public’, while others are still ‘in the closet’. In some of the cases, their educators have no idea of what is really going on.

Without offering any concrete ideas on what should be changed, Rabbi Horowitz correctly points out that *something* must be done.

What I found interesting was that right away, the very first commenter, chose to bury his (or her) head in the sand. The comment was:

I dont believe it. 13 and 14 year old kids are still very much under their parents control. They might not be as frum as their parents might want them to be, but eating on Yom Kippur and being Mechalel Shabbos at home with their parents there? Personally I think that you are trying to scare up some business for yourself. Maybe get more speaking engagements or more people reading your column. Kids at that age are not bold enough to go against their parents.

The commenter, IMHO, missed the point entirely. Could a parent enforce observance on a thirteen or fourteen year old? Probably. They could probably lock up the kitchen on Yom Kippur, make sure the kid doesn't go to parties on Friday night, bentches after every meal and so on. But is that really what we want? In my opinion, if you have to *force* kids to keep the mitzvos, then you've already lost a good deal of the battle.

Teenagers (and yes, even ones as young as 13) are old enough to begin searching for their own identity and to begin forming world-views. They are no longer at an age where they will simply accept the hashkafos of parents simply because it's what their parents believe and do. They are beginning to find their way in the world and will not be stuffed back in the bottle. As the parent of three kids in the age range of 11 to 14, I can tell you that they can all think independently of how you *want* them to think.

The goal, as I said earlier, is not to enforce observance of the mitzvos. The goal should be to foster an environment in which your children *want* to keep the mitzvos. That's the only method that has any chance of success... because the time will come when your thirteen-year-old turns twenty, and you have no control over him/her at all. At that point, the only thing that you have left is how much you made your kids want to keep the mitzvos. You won't be able to force them anymore.

The Wolf

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Geocentrism: Jewish Press Readers Let Amnon Goldberg Have It

Last week, Amnon Goldberg wrote a letter to the Jewish Press advocating that the hard-geocentric model (i.e. that the earth is the center of the universe, not just the solar system) as the Torah-true model. I blogged about one little absurdity to the theory.

Well, in today's Jewish Press, there are six letters to the editor, all of which concern the extended debate surrounding Rabbi Natan Slifkin. Of the six letters, five take issue with Amnon Goldberg's letter and theory. Several of them even brought up the point that I made in my post, that a "rotating universe" would require most objects in the universe to zoom by at speeds far faster than the speed of light.

The Wolf

Monday, October 08, 2007

You Don't Have To Buy The Whole Package

Eeees and I recently attended a Bar Mitzvah. In fact, it was the Bar Mitzvah of the son of the couple with whom we had our snootiness problem about two years ago. Over the last two years, we have become friendly with the family, had them over to our house for meals, invited them to our son's Bar Mitzvah and now attended the Bar Mitzvah of their oldest son.

This Bar Mitzvah was not like the Bar Mitzvah that we had for our son. We had separate seating, they had mixed seating. All of our music was Jewish, theirs had quite a few modern tunes. Ours had a mechitza for dancing, theirs didn't. At theirs, the DJ gave away a giant blowup Simpson's couch to the best dancers (thank God our kids didn't come away with that - they were orange! :) ). We didn't have a DJ or prizes. But that's fine... no one has to do things our way, or their way.

During the festivities, Eeees and I talked about how our Bar Mitzvah was different from this and concluded that this type of affair was not one that we would have. If we had Walter's Bar Mitzvah to do over again, we would probably do it the same way again. Aside from the separate seating (which we did for other reasons), we preferred the way we did it to the way this Bar Mitzvah went. That's not to say that this Bar Mitzvah wasn't good... we had a great time, and loved being present to help celebrate our friend's simcha. It's just not the way we would do it... but that's fine - as I said above, two people don't have to celebrate the same simcha the same way.

One of the things that we talked about at the affair was how we seem to be somewhere in-between several different mehalchim (paths). We're not Yeshivish, yet I wouldn't say that we're really Modern Orthodox either. This past Shabbos we ate with a family who could be described as Yeshivish, maybe even Chareidi-like... and we were comfortable and had a great time. At the same time, we are also comfortable with our friends who just had the Bar Mitzvah, and they are clearly Modern-Orthodox and have a good time with them as well. We daven in a shul that could be described as Yeshivish, but yet has many people who are not in the Yeshivish mold. I don't wear a hat, nor do I cover my head with my tallis, and yet I am the regular ba'al kriah there and sometime ba'al tefillah as well. We hang around with people who are to the "right" of us and the "left" of us. So, where do we fit? What's our "label?" With which community to we belong? That was the question that Eeees asked me yesterday.

I responded to her that you don't have to buy the whole package from any one group. You can take some elements that you like from the Yeshivish mehalech, and some elements from the Modern Orthodox mehalech and some elements from other mehalchim and synthesize them into your own mehalech. There is no one, I told her (apart from some Chareidim) that say that you have to take the entire package of any one group and live by it. Feel free to borrow from here or from there. Sure, you may not end up fitting neatly into one of the "labels" but who cares? People don't (or shouldn't) live their lives to fit into a label -- they should live their lives according to the values, ideals and mores that they hold dear and wish to live by. And that's actually how we've been living our lives for the last sixteen years, taking a bit from here and a bit from there to form our own whole. Maybe we should start a new mehalech called "Wolfish?"

It's very interesting living in-between the different communities. We have a television in our house (and yes, it's in the living room -- not hidden away in our bedroom or in a closet). We go out to movies. I'm a firm believer in higher education (read: college) and critical thinking. I'm a firm believer in encouraging children to ask questions, not stifling them. If you're a regular reader of my blog, then you know my position on many matters regarding Judaism today. I'm very open about who I am and what I believe.

And yet, Eeees covers her hair -- not because of societal pressure, but because she believes that it's the right thing to do. I learn every day, not because I think it's an interesting intellectual pursuit or because I think that the learning police are going to catch me if I don't -- I do it because I think it's the right thing to do. I don't have secular music at a seudas mitzvah not because I don't like secular music, but because I think that, for me, it doesn't have a place at a seudas mitzvah. I monitor which television shows my kids watch, what movies they see and what internet sites they visit, because I think it's the right thing to do. (As an aside, George won a Simpsons blow up doll by the Bar Mitzvah. The DJ asked him who he likes better, Bart or Homer. Eeees and I were laughing because we knew that he had no idea who either of them were -- we don't let our twelve year old watch The Simpsons.) We have some definite ideas about what is considered tznius and how a young girl should act. We have rules on how we feel that our sons, as B'nei Torah should act, both in the Bein Adam LaMakom and Bein Adam L'Chaveiro categories. We have standards of kashrus that the kids know that they can't eat in certain places, even if they are labeled as kosher.

So, we're neither here nor there. But you know what? I'm happy that way.

The Wolf

(Side note: While I was composing this post, Walter called me to inform me of two extracurricular clubs he is joining at school. One will work through mishnayos Seder Nizikin and finish by the end of the school year. The other is a Latin club. It seems that he too wants to take from multiple mehalchim as well.)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A Quick Take on Geocentrism

This past week's Jewish Press had a letter from Amnon Goldberg, of Sefad, Israel, advocating geocentrism as the Torah-true view of cosmology. He relies on Mach's Principle (something that has never been fully accepted by the scientific community) to make the point. He states:

Mach’s Principle shows that a universe going around the Earth every 24 hours will produce exactly the same effects as Foucault’s Pendulum, Coriolis forces, earth bulge, weather patterns etc., as an Earth rotating in its axis every 24 hours.

Now, I'm not going to claim that I fully understand Mach's Principle, but one of the main problems I have with it is this:

The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest galaxy to the Milky Way. It lies aproximately 2.5 million light-years away from us. If one maintains that the entire universe rotates around the earth every day, that means that the Andromeda Galaxy would speed along, making a 15.7 million light-year journey every day (circumference = pi * diameter)*. That results in a speed *much* faster than the speed of light. And objects that are even further away would have to travel even faster to make it around the earth every day. To me, a rotating earth sounds much more reasonable.

The Wolf

(*Yes, I know the path that the galaxy would take would be an elipse and not a circle -- I just used the formula for the circumference of a circle as an approximation.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Are Children Conceived Through IVF Spiritually Defective? -- Part II

Back in June, I commented on a column on by Rabbi Manis Friedman regarding couples who use IVF (and other assistive methods)* to have children. In his original article (no longer available at, but available here), he argues that children born through IVF are somehow spiritually deficient. He brings two examples of people whose conception was not 100% natural and how they required "correction" (his term) later in life.

This article generated a lot of debate and discussion at the time it was published and in the following months. Apparently, someone on the Imamother message board knows Rabbi Friedman and asked him for clarification of his statements. His response is below:

I am writing in response to questions received about an article of mine that appeared on about assisted reproduction.

Firstly let me note that the article was written as part of a symposium on the subject and was meant to present only one aspect of the discussion – namely the importance and significance of intimacy, and was not in any way intended to be a Halachic
ruling or direct instruction to individuals who required the blessing of assisted reproduction.

created an incredibly intricate world with countless details. As students of Torah, we believe that no detail, large or small, is insignificant. Each creation is made a certain way for certain reasons.

If this is true of the growth of a single blade of grass, as the Baal Shem Tov teaches, then surely it is true of the birth of a child. If a child is born a certain way it is for a specific reason, and that reason is not trivial or dispensable.

The fact that a child is created from man and woman; the fact that the gestation period is nine months; the fact that birth involves contractions and labor; these are all necessary for the child’s future, as are all the other attending details. Should anything be changed or different, that would effect some quality or aspect of the baby’s health that would need to be compensated for.

Even conventional health professionals are coming to recognize that certain problems in adulthood can be traced to unusually difficult labor, premature birth, cesarean section, and other birth irregularities.

As the circumstances of birth do so effect the development of the child, it is important and helpful to know what those effects are and what particular circumstances may have contributed to their presence. For example, what are the special needs of a child born prematurely? Another example would be the lasting effect of separation from the mother too soon after birth. These effects can be physical or emotional and are not limited to childhood but last into adulthood.

To dismiss this would be irresponsible and detrimental to the child.

The same must be said of the importance and significance of the physical contact and relationship that leads to conception. It is simply irresponsible to take comfort in the mistaken belief that the absence of that intimacy will have no effect.

Like in a case where one must violate Shabbos to save a life – no one would ever argue that saving this life wasn’t an incredible mitzvah. And yet, there’s Teshuva
that needs to be done to rectify the “overridden” Shabbos. Or if a Rov instructs someone to break their fast on Yom Kippur, they should make up for the “lost” fast on another day – even though absolutely no sin or transgression was committed. Similarly, we need to pay attention to the assisted reproduction child’s “loss” while that does not in any way – whatsoever – imply guilt or wrongdoing on the part of the parents. It is a responsible recognition of the child’s unique condition, and, in fact, would be a natural extension of the selflessness that the parents have already clearly demonstrated!

There is no question that those who use assisted reproduction, when all else has failed, certainly love their child and very likely give them more affection than the regular birth child. There’s also no question that, having checked with a rov and following his instructions, that child will then be born completely in accordance with HaShem’s will.

But even a miracle baby may need some special attention to compensate for the lack of the physical, natural process – however miraculous. Like the Torah tells us of the Monn
food from heaven couldn’t satisfy like food from earth.

Therefore, my point about this process is that people should be aware. Parents should know that the physical intimacy of mother and father is necessary not only for them but for the child as well.

Practically, a child born through assisted reproduction might at some point in life, for example, need help with their own capacity for intimacy or closeness in interpersonal relationships. Should such a problem develop, parents should know where to look for the cause.

If, for example, a child shows signs of alienation or distance and cant seem to warm up to a relationship, the first thing to consider is to remedy the absence of intimacy in his or her own birth process. (And I would strongly encourage to seek out a good homeopathic doctor who will find the right remedy for the individual child.)

As I mentioned, this is the case with many birth irregularities. We know this is true of children who are weaned prematurely. The same would be true of a child who, because of an emergency, is whisked away from the mother before she could hold the child. There’s no question that in an emergency, the child should be whisked away and – in spite of the possibility for undesirable consequences – rushing the child away immediately is the right thing to do. But at the same time, we must not dismiss the trauma that that causes.

So when assisted reproduction is a necessary alternative and the circumstances are such that halacha allows it, then it is not only allowed but necessary and it facilitates the performance of this awesome mitzvah. But the original and natural method of conception holds benefit that this child will not be receiving, far more significant than the difference between, for example, mother’s milk or formula.

It is true, as many have pointed out, that the Messiras Nefesh
and emotional involvement of the parents in the assisted reproduction process, and the and deep bond it can create, may in fact compensate to a greater or lesser degree. But it is not a certainty that would render this conversation moot.

So, I am not disagreeing with Halacha and I am not dismissing, G-d forbid, the virtues and miracles of assisted reproduction. I’m only urging that in using these methods, we not pretend that nothing is missing.

In conclusion, this subject demands a lot of study and a lot of thought. The purpose of the original article was not to discuss the virtues of alternative birth processes, but to talk about the significance and importance of real, holy, sacred intimacy – something sorely lacking in modern society as a whole.

Those couples who have babies through assisted reproduction should be rewarded for their efforts and be blessed with only Nachas form their children and children’s children in the merit of their Mesiras Nefesh and may they never need any remedy or any compensating. But just in case… it’s good to know.

Wishing you and all of Klal Yisroel
a Gmar Chassima Tova.

Rabbi Manis Friedman

I find this response just as troubling as the original article.

In this response, Rabbi Friedman brings examples of birth trauma and other traumas that happen in the womb affecting a child later in life. I'm not qualified to state whether or not people have memories going as far back as in the womb, so I won't comment on that aspect of the article. Yet, even if I grant that he is correct on this, that's a far cry from saying that a person can remember something from before their very conception. It's one thing to say that a baby "remembers" a c-section, a premature birth or a difficult labor. It's another thing entirely to say that it remembers something that happened prior to its own conception.

Furthermore, when he says:

It is simply irresponsible to take comfort in the mistaken belief that the absence of that intimacy will have no effect.

I'm curious as to why he thinks this? Does he have some scientific data to show that the lack of intimacy in the conception of a child is detrimental to the child? Has he done a study on this? Perhaps we should also account for the type of bra that the mother wore right before conception or the brand of mattress that was used. Is it "simply irresponsible" to dismiss these possible factors? No, it's not... simply because there is no data to show that they have any effect on the child. The same could be said for the lack of intimacy itself.

Now, if Rabbi Friedman were simply leaving matters in the spiritual realm (i.e. that such a child has spiritual difficulties), I could disagree with him, but not really disprove his point. However, he goes on further to state:

Practically, a child born through assisted reproduction might at some point in life, for example, need help with their own capacity for intimacy or closeness in interpersonal relationships. Should such a problem develop, parents should know where to look for the cause.

In other words, the problems that such children face are not only spiritual, but also emotional and social. Well, now, we have something that we can test for. Does he know of a study that shows that IVF children have these emotional and social problems? Does he have some data (even anecdotal) that we are not privy too? My guess would be no.

To be fair, he uses the weasel-word "might." But since he doesn't *know* what the effects are, he could just as easily have said any of the following:

  • Practically, a child born through assisted reproduction might, at some point in life, for example, be strangely drawn to fertility clinics.
  • Practically, a child born through assisted reproduction might, at some point in life, for example, show an unusual fondness for turkey basters.
  • Practically, a child born through assisted reproduction might, at some point in life, for example, have a desire to marry a lab technician.

All of the above have just as much scientific validity as his statement.

He tries to soften his criticism by stating that the parents of IVF children did nothing wrong, but even so, the kids need a fix. As he states:

Like in a case where one must violate Shabbos to save a life – no one would ever argue that saving this life wasn’t an incredible mitzvah. And yet, there’s Teshuva that needs to be done to rectify the “overridden” Shabbos. Or if a Rov instructs someone to break their fast on Yom Kippur, they should make up for the “lost” fast on another day – even though absolutely no sin or transgression was committed.

Now, I will grant that Rabbi Friedman knows far more about halacha than I do. But the above paragraph is downright puzzling. If one is required to override Shabbos to save a life, then it is a mitzvah to do so... and you should *never* need to do teshuva for doing a mitzvah. Part of teshuva is vowing not to do the same thing again in similar circumstances. How could a person do that... in the same circumstance, they are *required* to do the same thing. If one has to pick up the phone to call an ambulance on Shabbos, then I can't see how teshuva is required... if the same circumstance came up again, you'd do the same thing! I can't fathom the idea that Hatzoloh members, who respond to calls on Shabbos and Yom Tov have to do teshuva for their actions.

(That being said, I do recognize that it is possible to have to override Shabbos and still be at fault. One who leaves work late on Friday and now finds himself driving through a dangerous situation when Shabbos starts has to keep driving... but there is some negligence on his part and some teshuva is required there... but unless he is calling infertile parents negligent, then the two cases are not analogous.)

He goes on to state:

Similarly, we need to pay attention to the assisted reproduction child’s “loss” while that does not in any way – whatsoever – imply guilt or wrongdoing on the part of the parents.

That's fine, I suppose. The same logic applies to crack babies too -- it's not their fault, but there is, nonetheless, a serious problem. However, at least with crack babies, there is a measurable, observable deficiency that we can then use to go back to pregnant women and say "Don't smoke crack! If you do, your baby will have problems X, Y and Z." But in this case, we don't have any data as to what the problems will be... indeed, Rabbi Friedman didn't even come up with any conclusive problems at all!

Lastly, I found it interesting that while in this response he recommends searching for a homeopathic doctor to address problems that arise in such children, he did not do so in the original article. In the original article, the recommended method of overcoming problems with such children was the saying of Chitas (a Hebrew acronym for Chumash, Tehillim and Tanya).

In short, I'm not sure what Rabbi Friedman was hoping to gain with this response. He is making the mistake of comparing post-conception traumas to things that happen before conception (where no trauma is possible -- how can you traumatize that which does not yet exist?) and using faulty logic to show that some sort of "fix" is necessary to a problem that he himself is not sure exists.

The Wolf

Hat tip: OnionSoupMix
*(As in my last post, I'm using IVF as short-hand for all types of artificial reproductive assistance)