Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Separate Sidewalks?

Much has been written about the recent Tznius asifa in Israel. I plan to comment on it too in the future, but I need to get some materials together. In short, I think that raising people's conciousness about tznius is a good thing (even if the asifa went about it in a completely wrong fashion - but that's for another post).

However, there are times when it gets carried too far - and I think that the residents of Beit Shemesh (where I have relatives living) have reached that point. In parts of the town, there are now separate sidewalks for men and for women. Signs are posted on the street advising women that they have to cross over to the other side of the street. Women are not allowed on the side of the street where the shul is located.

Now, lest I sound like someone who is in favor of licentiousness and free love, let me reiterate that standards of tznius are a good thing. Lord knows I don't need to see any more bare midriffs in New York in the summer. But the idea that the sexes have to be so completely separated that they can't even walk on the same street is ludicrous.

Has there ever been a Jewish community where it was noted that this standard was observed? Did our ancestors in the midbar walk on different sides of the paths between tents? When Dovid danced in the streets, did he do it on the men's side? In any of the shtetls in Europe, was there ever a reqirement that the men and women occupy different streets?

Rabbi Maryles has noted in his blog recently the ever-increasing trend toward the separation of the sexes, starting with separate seating by weddings, to the ever-increasing fact that the kallah does not come over to the men's side during the dancing, to separate seating by Sheva Berachos - even of the chosson and kallah!

I recently read a science fiction series by Robert J. Sawyer called the Parallax Trilogy. The series centers on a world where the Neanderthals, not humans, survived and became the dominant species of the planet. On the Neanderthal world, the sexes live separate lives for most of the month. For 25 out of every thirty days, the men live in one community and the women (and small children) live in another. It is only during the remaining five days (when "Two Become One" that the men and womenfolk get together.

One has to wonder if that isn't the goal for some of the ultra-zealots - to, in short, have separate communities where men will sit and learn all day and not be distracted by the womenfolk and the women will work and support the men without being distracted by their presence. Of course, I realize that I'm greatly exaggerating the situation - after all, we're only talking about separate sidewalks, not separate houses and communities. But sometimes, I feel like that is the direction that we are headed in.

What ever happened to taking a moderate approach?

The Wolf

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bloggers and Torah Authority

DovBear reflects on the upcoming Agudah convention and the anticipated address regarding bloggers. Based on the advertising (as reported by Orthomom), it seems that the speech is being framed as a bloggers vs. Torah Authority showdown.

As DB points out in his post, there are many, many more pressing issues that could be dealt with at the convention than bloggers. I don't think I need to repeat what those issues are (and I think he left off a few good issues as well); we all know what the strengths and weaknesses of our Orthodox communites are. What I would like to focus on is the issue of blogging and the question that is asked by the advertisement "Have bloggers declared open season on Torah Authority? "

Of course, to state that the "bloggers" have any opinion is like saying that "New Yorkers" are in favor of a particular opinion... the bloggers are a diverse crowd with diverse opinions. Are there some bloggers that have "declared open season" on Torah authority? Probably. The fact of the matter is that the J-Blogosphere is a very diverse crowd, covering the range of opinions from extreme chareidism to atheism - and just about every stripe in-between. There are bloggers that are very supportive of today's gedolim, some that are mildly supportive and some that are outright antagonistic. Stating that "bloggers" are bad because some of them are anti-Torah is like stating that books are bad because there are books written by athiests. The answer, of course, isn't to ban the medium - it's to educate people to be able to discern what information is worth listening to and internalizing and which information should be ignored and left to wither and die in the marketplace of ideas.

The blogs really first came to prominence, of course, with the ban on Rabbi Slifkin's books. Sure, there were some blogs around before then, but the ban was the first event where the J-Blogosphere played a major role in the public perception of Rabbinic authority. Since blogging is all about the disemination of information and not about restricting it (if I didn't want to diseminate information, I just wouldn't blog), naturally the bloggers tended to side with the people who were against the ban. Of course, there were some bloggers that were pro-ban; again, the J-Blogosphere is not a monolithic entity with group-think. Since the ban represented the supression of information, most of the J-blogosphere was against it. That was the start of the "blogs are against Torah authority" meme.

Most of the bloggers I know, however, do have respect for Torah authority. Heck, the fact is that many of the J-bloggers are Orthodox - they keep Torah U'Mitzvos, they learn daily and they believe in the Creator. When I have a halachic question, I go to a rav, as do most of the J-bloggers. By doing so, we show an a priori commitment to Torah authority. If we didn't, we wouldn't daven, keep kosher, etc.

But when one asks the question "Have bloggers declared open season on Torah Authority? " one has to define a few terms. Just like the term "bloggers" is not as straightforward as it seems, so too must one define the terms "declared open season" and "Torah Authority."

What is "Torah Authority?" Does it mean that I have to follow what's written in the Shulchan Aruch? Does it mean that I have to follow the pronouncements of any rav? Does it mean that I have to believe counter-factual information because a rabbinic authority of the past or present declared it to be true? Does it mean following rabbinic advise in halachic matters? Or do I need to consult them on which investments to put in my 401(k) plan? What is "Torah" and what consitutes "Authority?" Is Torah all-inclusive of every aspect of my life? Does it go as far as what hechsharim I have to follow (or reject)? What about which lulav and esrog I buy for Succos? Whether a woman uses oil or candles for Shabbos lights? Whether or not I should smoke or drink? Which model car I should buy (does V'Nishmartem M'od L'nafshosichem dictate that I *must* buy the largest, safest car?). What magazines can I subscribe to? Which radio stations can I listen to? At what point is something no longer within the realm of "Torah" that that particular activity isn't under the "Authority?" Or are *all* activities within one's life, from the moment one gets up in the morning until one goes to sleep at night, considered "Torah?"

What is "authority?" Does that mean that I have to blindly follow the dictates of rabbinic leadership in anything that is deemed to be "Torah?" Am I allowed to even question, whether publicly or privately (i.e. to myself) the reason for the decision and the factors that went into it? Do I have to submit totally and unequivocably, or is it merely a recommendation (in areas that aren't strictly halachic). If I ask a rav for advice on how to handle a family matter, but in the end I go against his advice for whatever reason, is that going against "Torah Authority?"

And lastly, what is "declared open season?" The term, of course, originates from hunting, where certain animals could only be hunted within a specific time of year (their season). When the time of year came for a specific animal, the season was declared open and hunting could begin.

Of course, no one at the Agudah thinks that the bloggers are literally hunting people in "Torah Authority" positions with guns as a hunter hunts a large animal. But the question does imply a destruction - hunting is a destructive activity - even if done for utilitarian or ecological purposes. Are we bloggers being destructive to "Torah Authority" (however it is defined)? I don't think so. To say that we are declaring open season on Torah Authority is like saying that we want to put Rabbis and gedolim out of business. However, for most of us, that's simply not the case. What we want is leadership - true leadership that is responsible to the Torah as well as to the people. What we want is not just rabbinic decisions, but the ability to understand them as well. When a ban is published on the works of Rabbi Slifkin because he states the world is older than 5,767 years, it's not enough to simply say "it contradicts the Torah, therefore it's bad and banned." You have to be able to address people's questions and concerns. Don't just tell me it's wrong - tell me why it's wrong and how you plan to explain away scientific evidence to the contrary. It's akin to a rabbinic pronouncement of "there's no elephant here" while standing under the big top at the Ringling Brothers circus.

The bottom line, of course, is that the J-blogosphere, like the telephone, is here to stay. People will continue to express their opinions, as they always have, whether it be in a telephone call to a friend, a letter to the editor of a newspaper, or a speech in a public forum. The J-blogosphere is simply a new forum that is available for people to express their ideas. If they don't want to enter this forum directly, then the best bet to maintain Torah Authority would be to educate people; giving them critical thinking skills to be able to determine what information is worth keeping and what information should be discarded. Simply hiding from the J-blogosphere only makes matters worse for them - they are, in effect, abdicating the platform to those who truly do wish them harm.

The Wolf

Monday, November 13, 2006

High School Yet Again... One More Fear Of Mine

As you no doubt know from my previous posts, Eeees and I have been looking for a high school for our eighth grader. We've seen several that we have been impressed with and we will be applying to them.

However, I personally have one big fear about the whole processes... and I don't know if it's because I, personally, had a very bad experience or if this happens more often. Perhaps others who have gone through this process can give me some help or insight.

Our son goes to a fairly RW Chareidi, black-hat, white-shirt/dark-pants only school. The high schools that we have looked at are not like that at all - they all encourage their students to go to college, they allow clothing with colors, many of the kids wear kippot s'rugot, many of them have televisions (well, so do many in the current school, even though it's officially highly discouraged), and most of the schools are Zionistic.

Part of the application process for just about every school that we are interested in involves having the principal fill out an evaluation on the student. Now, to be perfectly fair, my son is not the greatest student - when he's not sufficiently interested or challenged. I've found that when he has an interest in the gemara that they are learning, he is usually pretty capable of understanding it. However, if it's not so interesting, then his grades will start to plummet.

The menahel has spoken with us about this several times. Usually we can crack the whip on him for a while and get him to pay attention, but then he sometimes slides back as his other interests take over his attention. The result was that in seventh grade, his grades in Limudei Kodesh were less than stellar.

The menahel thinks our son has a problem. He thinks that because our son has an interest in animals and other things aside from full-time learning, there must be a problem with him. He's advised us to seek professional counseling for him. To be honest, Eeees and I don't see that as his problem - he's pretty well adjusted, has friends and acts like a typical adolescent (meaning that he alternates between being very good and making our lives miserable). He enjoys reading anything he can - Judaic and secular. He does learn on his own sometimes (although not gemara). However, he's not going to be a Rosh Yeshiva (at least based on his current temperment - in the future, who knows?) and learning doesn't occupy his every waking moment. As with me in high school, the harder he is pushed in one direction that he doesn't want to go in, the more he will recoil in the opposite direction. The menahel thinks that is a sign that the kid needs therapy. We think it's the sign of a teenager.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I have a real fear (possibly unfounded) that when the menahel sees the application forms and the schools to which we are applying, with their radically different hashkafos than the present yeshiva, he may try to sabotage the process.

Why do I say this? Because it happened to me. Allow me to present my story.

As many of the readers of this blog know, I was pretty miserable in high school. I had little in common hashkafically with the administration or my classmates. I did not have the skills or the interest to learn at the level of the class - and no one thought to actually try and help me out. That's not to say I was not at fault - I certainly could have tried harder - but I didn't. With few exceptions, my learning in high school was pretty non-existant. The only reason I can learn today is because of the yeshiva I went to after high school. And therein lies the tale.

When I was in twelfth grade, my mother was ill. She spent most of the school year in the hospital with various related health issues. Since I hated school, I took unfair advantage of the situtaion and played hookey - quite often. One time, I missed an entire week, hiding out in the house. That was no one's fault but my own. Sure, if the yeshiva had made more of an effort to reach out to me and include me in the learning it might not have happened, but I was more than capable of knowning that my actions in skipping school were wrong.

About February, the Rosh Yeshiva called me into his office. "Wolf," he told me, "I want you to know that we can legally hold you back. You've missed enough days of school this year that you can be held back another year."

I gulped. Being stuck in this school another year was the last thing I wanted. I had had it up to here being the square peg that they were trying to pound into the round hashkafic hole. I wanted out - as should have been evidenced by the fact that I was missing school to begin with.

In the end, he offered a deal. I had to move into the dorm, be in school *every day*, be present at every davening and learning seder. If I could do that, I'd graduate in June. If not... I had no choice; I took the deal. I moved into the dorm (oh, how I hated that dorm) and was there every day since then. I missed one day in May due to a family member having an operation - but I got permission from the Rosh Yeshiva in advance to be out that day. I kept my end of the bargain to the letter.

In June, the Rosh Yeshiva called upon me again and asked me what I had planned for next year. I informed him that I planned to go to a small local yeshiva (I didn't mention that I planned to go to college at night - I wasn't *that* dumb) that was recommended to me by someone who knew my family, and I mentioned the name of the Yeshiva and it's head. His response: "Why don't you go to a normal yeshiva next year?" I had no idea what he was talking about. True it was a small yeshiva - it wasn't a Chaim Berlin or Mirrer, but still it was pretty RW hashkafically. However, the school wasn't to his liking. He threatened me that if I didn't make plans to go to a "normal yeshiva" (with him defining the word "normal") that I would not graduate.

I was heart-broken - I nearly left the office in tears. I had kept my end of the bargain faithfully. I did everything that was asked of me - and yet I was going to be stuck in that school again for another year. It just wasn't fair! It would be one thing if he just held me back because of my absences - that would have been his right since I did play hookey. But he offered me a deal - and I kept my end of it! It wasn't right of him to use threaten the graduation I had earned.

My mother, upon hearing the news, called the RY and asked him to reconsider. How could he do this, she asked? What was she going to tell her son about frumkeit when he sees that a rabbi's word means nothing. How would she keep her son on the derech if he sees that honesty means nothing? His response to my mother was "I don't tell you how to cook rice, you don't tell me how to run a yeshiva."

As it turns out, my mother knows the wives of some influential rabbanim in the community and she called them and literally poured out her heart in sorrow to them and their husbands. All this, of course, happened behind my back, but wheels were set in motion; phone calls were made.

About two days later, the RY called me over and said "Wolf, who started this rumor that you're not graduating? Of course you are. In fact, I'd like you to speak by the graduation." I was stunned and speechless.

In the end, I graduated, and I spoke by the graduation. But the whole process left me scarred and contributed a great deal to the some of the skepticism and cynicism that I have today about the frum community.

It wasn't until next year that I found out what the problem with the new yeshiva was -- the RY of the new yeshiva (unbeknowst to me) used to be a rebbe at this high school and when he left, it wasn't on the best of terms.

So, that's my story. Someone in a position of authority tried to interfere with my choice of yeshiva after high school and used his considerable power to force me to attend a yeshiva of his choosing.

And, I fear, the same thing may happen here with my son. To be honest, it could be (and I'm hoping) that my fears are unfounded. Maybe this doesn't go on all the time and I just had someone who, for whatever reasons, felt that playing with my life was good. Maybe I just had one rotten apple and other Roshei Yeshiva and Menahels are not like that. I really have no idea whether the Menahael will torpedo our son's chances of going to a different school because he thinks it'll be better for him in a school of his choosing and of like hashkafah. It's something that I really am afaid of.

Or, it could be that based on my experience, I'm just being paranoid.

The Wolf

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

... And Then There Are Days...

... when we wish we seriously reconsider sending him away to high school. Ah, the "joys" of adolescence. :)

The Wolf

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Go Out And Vote!

I stay away from politics on this blog, but I do follow the goings-on in the halls of Congress and in state and local government.

It's very important for you to go out and vote. Vote Demolican, Vote Republicrat, Vote Independent, but go out and vote. It's important that those who are elected know that the Jewish community is an important part of the overall community and that we need and demand representation.

So, go out and pull the lever.

The Wolf

Monday, November 06, 2006

High School Regrets

Eeees and I have spent the last two weeks looking at various high schools. Our oldest is now in eighth grade and will be attending high school next year. We've already ruled out the yeshiva he's attending now for high school, so we've been looking at alternatives.

We're purposely steering away from the "black hat" type yeshiva that he currently attends. He's not terribly happy there and it's fairly clear that he's not cut out for learning ten hours a day. In addition to that, we want a place that will teach him to be able to learn on his own, and prepare him for both college and post-high-school yeshiva. I think that if he remains where he is now, he may be marginally prepared for the first two, but not for the third; I think he'll be "burnt out" on learning in that type of atmosphere. I have other reasons as well for steering him away from there... I'll get to those a little later.

And so we're looking elsewhere. We've seen three high schools in the New York area (sorry, PT, we're really not keen on sending him to Wisconsin) and have been favorably impressed with all three. They all stress learning, have different levels of shiurim to accomodate students that are stronger or weaker in learning, offer real secular studies classes, AP courses, electives and generous extracurricular activities. He's really liked what he's seen by two of the schools (we didn't bring him to the third, although we now regret that decision - we know him well enough to know that he'd love what he saw by the third school as well) and we'll probably be applying to all three.

In short, I'm hoping for him to have a vastly different high school experience than I had. My high school experience was... well... let's just say that it works for certain communities, but not for me. The high school I went to was very small - about 40-50 boys at any one time. Since it was so small, there was only one class per grade - there was no room to try to accomodate those who were weaker in learning - of whom I was one. I was usually left behind by the third daf in any given year. It was rare that anyone tried to help me out. Eventually, I just stopped trying.

The day was as follows:

7:30 Shacharis
8:15 Halacha seder
8:30 Breakfast
9:00 Morning Seder (15 minute break in-between)
1:15 Mincha
1:30 Lunch
2:30 Second Seder
3:45 English
6:20 Dinner
7:00 Night Seder
9:15 Ma'ariv

English consisted of four subjects in ninth and tenth grades - Math, Science, Social Studies and English. In 11th grade, Science dropped out, extending the Second Seder to about 4:20. In 12th grade, there was no Math, and so Second Seder went to about 5:00.

Every other Sunday there was no English. Second Seder ended at 4:00 and if you had no Night Seder that night, you were done for the day.

If you had no Night Seder at night, your day was done at 6:20. 9th grade had Night Seder two nights a week, 10th grade had three nights, 11th grade had four and 12th grade had five nights - Sunday to Thursday.

There were no extracurricular activities, except one. On Lag B'Omer, we'd take a field trip to the park for a softball game or some such activity. The only other break in the routine was that once a month the Rosh Yeshiva would give a one-hour lecture on the sugya the Yeshiva was learning. Of course, the lecture was given in Yiddish - and I didn't understand a word of it. One time, the Rosh Yeshiva said to me after the lecture "Wolf, if you can tell me what I said in the lecture, I'll give you twenty dollars." I wanted to punch him in the nose.

But that was it - that was my high school experience for four long years. Long days, long learning hours, barely-there secular studies classes (it's a minor miracle that I made it into college), no help at all from the rabbeim who looked at me as largly a consumer of space and oxygen, and disdain from the administration. Any mention of anything that was out of their definition of the "torah world" was verbotten. The day after the Challenger shuttle exploded, I got in trouble for discussing the fact that I had seen news replays of it on television. My attempts to (secretly, of course) play Strat-O-Matic baseball were secretly taped by school spies, as I related in a previous post). I dared not bring in any book that I might have been reading at home.

Of course, one is entitled to ask why I spent four years at that school if it was so miserable. Well, there is an answer to that too. Without going into too many details, suffice it to say that my mother (who is disabled) was unable to work. My father (who isn't frum) didn't contribute anything toward my yeshiva education. The one thing that I give the administration of the yeshiva credit for was that they allowed me to remain there for six years (including two years of elementary school) pretty much for free. For that act of chesed, I can thank them, but not for much else.

In short, for four years, I barely learned anything and was miserable. In looking at the yeshivos over the last two weeks with my son, I could not help but feel extreme regret for my "misspent" youth. I can only imagine what I would have accomplished when I was younger if I was in an enviornment such as what these schools presented.

Don't get me wrong - an intense learning schedule such as the one above may be right for certain individuals - but it was wrong for me. The extremely long schedule*, the monotony, the attitudes of the teachers and the administration, the spying, the conniving and manipulation that went on nearly caused me to go off the derech altogether. That's something that I desparately want to avoid for my sons. I just wish I could have avoided it myself.

The Wolf

(N.B. - Just to be fair, I don't want anything to think that I was a completely not at fault in high school. I was certainly no angel - but I do place the fault of my experience largely on the yeshiva I went to).

* One time, the Rosh Yeshiva called everyone into the Bais HaMidrash and lectured us that there was too much battalah (time wasting, non-learning) going on in the Bais HaMedrash during learning time. "I don't understand it," he said. "You have a half hour for breakfast, an hour for lunch, forty minutes for dinner and fifteen minutes recess in the morning. Get all your battalah done then." After the lecture, a friend of mine turned to me and said "I'm surprised he didn't mention the ten hours between Ma'ariv and Shacharis"

Friday, November 03, 2006

Guest Post Over At Orthonomics

I have a guest post over at Orthonomics about how losing my credit card has been beneficial to me. Check it out!

Thank you, SephardiLady, for putting it up.

The Wolf

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Exactly Whom Is Doing The Arguing?

DovBear had a guest post from a blogger named "Ed" dealing with age of the earth issues. In the comments for that post, a person named Yosef asked the following question...

Why does everyone get so worked up unnecessarily? There are plenty of sources that make it perfectly clear that Hashem created a mature world, just like Adam was created fully grown. We wouldn't expect the world to look literally 5,767 years old anyway. How much hevel havalim over nothing!!!

Well, to be honest, it's not the people who are willing to accept scientific evidence who are the ones getting worked up - it's those who stick to a straight Young Earth Creationist (YEC) model.

If Yosef is correct that it's all an argument over nothing at all, the following conversation would take place:

Scientist: The earth is about 4 billion years old
YEC: You're right, the world does appear that old. However, we believe that God created the world to look mature.
Scientist: But you can't prove that! It's not scientific.
YEC: You're right, it's not. But it's what we believe.

However, that's not what happens. What happens is this:

Scientist: The earth is about 4 billion years old.
YEC: No it's not. Your carbon-14 dating is all wrong, you don't have a complete fossil record, half-life decay rates could have changed, galaxies aren't receding, yadda yadda yadda...

In other words, the YEC could simply say, "yes, you're right, based on the physical evidence, it appears that the world is very old. Had we not had a tradition that God created the world 5767 years ago, we'd agree with you." But that's not what happens - instead YECs try to show the scientist that his science is wrong and that he doesn't know anything about science anyway.

It's not the scientists who are getting "all worked up" and doing all the arguing. It's the YEC who are making the most noise.

The Wolf