Monday, February 26, 2007

Average Kids

Rabbi Horowitz had an article last week (OK, so I'm somewhat slow...) about kids who are average learners (even if they are excellent in middos and yiddishkeit) finding it more and more difficult to get into mainstream yeshivos. More and more often, these kids are being pushed into "alternative" yeshivos where they are often grouped together with "at risk" kids when, in reality, they don't suffer from the same problems that many at-risk kids suffer from.

As the parent of an eighth grader who is less than stellar in Gemorah, his article certainly struck a chord within me. Eeees and I were dreading the high-school application process because we knew that our son was average at best in Gemorah.

Maybe it's because we didn't apply to schools like Mirrer, Chaim Berlin, Torah V'Da'as, etc., but it seems that B"H, we were matzliach. He applied to four schools of a more "modern" bent (how I hate that word in that context) and he was accepted into three of them.

Sadly, the way Rabbi Horowitz reports it, it's a vicious cycle -- parents demand more excellence, so more "average" kids get left out. As the schools are increasingly populated only with excellent students, the average is pulled ever higher.

Truth to tell, I think that it is the responsibility of parents to try to find the best school that their son will fit in, and not necessarily the best school. We certainly could have applied to a school such as the type I listed above, and who knows, maybe he would have gotten into one -- but he certainly wouldn't be happy there. He needs a school that will work with him on his level of learning, challenge him to grow in learning to the best of his abilities and provide direction for post-graduate learning -- in limudei kodesh AND limudei chol. Simply going for the "best" school because of fear of losing social standing or future shidduch issues is incredibly counter-productive and the harm that you can cause a child far outweighs the benefits. Engaging in such behavior does far more to put a kid "at risk" then sending him to a yeshiva that accepts "average" students.

The Wolf

Monday, February 19, 2007

Goodbye Gosse?

I recently finished reading the book pictured at left. It's a book about The Genographic Project being run by National Geographic. The purpose of the project is to show the origins of modern humans and how they all relate to one another. Think of it as a giant family tree for the entire human race.

The project is based on genetics. Every human being carries two sex chromosomes. Women have two X chromosomes and males have an X and a Y. Since the Y chromosome gets passed down from father to son without being recombined as all other genes are, they can be very useful in tracking lineages through the male line. Furthermore, because mutations occur in the Y chromosome at a fairly constant rate, you can estimate, based on how many mutations there are in the gene, how long long it has been since you and any other given person had a common male ancestor. Using this data, scientists have developed a family tree for human beings and have found that all human beings today come from one man who lived in Africa roughly 60,000 - 90,000 years ago. Such a person has been dubbed "Adam" by the project. Of course, it's sixty thousand years and not six thousand, and he wasn't the first or only male... but so be it.

You might think that this research has been poo-pooed by the Jewish establishment, as is pretty much any other idea that contradicts a literal reading of Tanach (the Bible). As it turns out, that's not the case; on the contrary it has been embraced. It was embraced because the same technology was employed to show that the vast majority of the world's Kohanim today carry the mark of being descendants of a single individual who lived about three years ago. This was trumpeted as being a proof to the truth of the Torah -- after all, modern science shows that most of the Kohanim in the world are descended from a single person... just as the Torah says. This scientific achievement is trumpeted on such kiruv sites sites as Aish and Hidabroot.

Of course, I find it interesting how they embrace the technology that shows that today's Kohanim have a single common ancestor 3,000 years ago, but reject that same technology when it shows that people have been around for a lot longer than 6,000 years.

What's interesting about this particular bit of science is that it's immune to the Gosse theory. The Gosse theory is the often-stated idea that the world was created "looking old." The classic example is that on the day Adam was created, he was created as an adult. If he was created as a twenty year old, it would imply that at least twenty years had previously existed.

Gosse's idea can work for most of the proofs to the age of the universe and the earth, but in this case, Gosse falls down flat. The reason is as follows: Genetic testing has shown us all to have a common male ancestor 60,000 years ago (and a common female ancestor much earlier than that). If we all descended from a single male only 6,000 years ago, then there would not be as much genetic variation in the human species as currently exists -- only 10% of the variations in the Y chromosome would exist. The fact that as much variation exists as it does shows that our common ancestor is much further back than 6,000 years (based on the known rate of Y chromosome mutation).

Rabbi Dovid Kornriech wrote in the Yated last year that much of the evidence of an old universe can be thrown into doubt because the laws of nature were different during the six days of creation. By claiming that some or all of nature's laws were different during the six days of creation, he claims that most, if not all of the physical, geological, archaeological and paleontological evidence can be thrown into question or tossed out completely.

However, such a theory cannot really apply to Y chromosome (and mt-DNA studies which show lineages through the female line). Once Adam came into being, creation was complete. If a literal reading of Genesis were true, then the greatest variation in the Y-chromosome we would see would be 6,000 years. The fact that we see ten times that difference clearly shows that since Adam, there have been well more than 6,000 years. It would be highly dubious to state that the rate of genetic mutation changed somewhere along the way *since* creation. It would almost be like saying that the moon changed from a gas to a solid since the Rambam's time.

The Wolf

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

My Valentine's Day Post

I just overheard the following from a non-Jewish co-worker:

I heard that you can never gain ground in a relationship on Valentine's Day. No matter what you do, it always ends up in some disappointment of "is that it?" On the other hand, you can certainly lose ground in the relationship. So you have to do your due diligence...

To me, this is exactly the wrong approach to take with relationships. Allow me to explain.

I don't celebrate Valentine's Day. Not at all - no flowers, no candy - nothing. My wife knows this and kids me about it from time to time. I don't want to go into whether or not it is halachically permissible to celebrate the day -- even if it's OK to do so, it just doesn't feel right to me to celebrate a day connected to two Christian martyrs, even if the day has lost it's religious significance.

On the other hand, I try my utmost to make Eeees feel special every day so that every day is, in effect, Valentine's Day. I'm always looking for things that will cheer her up, ways to surprise her, unique gift ideas, etc. Likewise, she always does things for me to make me feel special. We don't *need* a Valentine's Day because, for us, every day is a day where we show our love for each other.

The result? Well, we've been married for over fifteen years and people still call us "the newlyweds."

So, men, take a hint. Valentine's Day isn't all that important. If you try your best year-round, you can safely skip the Feb 14 follies.

The Wolf

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Standards, Expectations and Unconditional Love -- What's the Right Mix?

This weekend, I made a trip up to YU for the annual SOY Seforim sale. One of the books that I picked up is Off the Derech by Faranak Margolese, which I am finding truly fascinating. So far, I've finished the first seventy pages or so and am eagerly looking forward to the rest.

One of the main points that Ms. Margolese makes early in the book is that people leave observant Judaism not because of intellectual issues (Science/Torah and the like), but primarily because of emotional issues. Adolescents can gain a negative emotional view of Judaism from parents, teachers, school administrators and friends. These factors together can contribute to a person's decision to "ditch" observance of the mitzvos as they get older - regardless of any belief in the historicity of the Revelation at Sinai or the Creation story as told in B'raishis (Genesis).

One of the factors that is brought up is the need of children to feel loved unconditionally. She brings a few anecdotes of people who felt that their parents' love for them was conditional on the level of their observance (whether that was actually the case or not). Because they felt that their parents wouldn't love them as much if they weren't observant, Judaism developed as a negative in their minds as adolescents and was (in their own admissions) a part of the reason that they strayed from observance of the mitzvos.

I can certainly understand the need for a child (including adolescents) to feel that they are loved without reservation. As a child, friends may come and go, teachers may be good one year and bad the next, this year's well-loved or well-hated principal may be out the door next year, but parents (barring the truly drastic of life events) are just about the only constants in a child's life. They are (or should be) the one place that a child knows that they can turn to no matter how bad things become. Parents are that last thrown life preserver in a child's life when stormy seas threaten to engulf them. In short, children need to know that when the chips are down, their parents are there for them.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for maintaining standards and expectations of a child. One example that Ms. Margolese brings is of a girl whose father would ask her in the morning if she davened. If she replied no, then he would tell her to go daven. However, since she was not particularly interested in davening, she would simply go up to her room, read for about half an hour, and then come back down and tell her father that she davened.

Now, as parents, I do believe that we have a right (and indeed a responsibility) to set standards and expectations for our children. We have an obligation to tell them what behavior is considered acceptable and which is not considered acceptable. Who among us wouldn't try to reprimand our teens if they were caught stealing? Certainly we would go about it in different ways -- one parent may try the "soft approach," another parent a stricter approach and yet another with a mixed message. Not all responses are valid or correct, of course, but we would all agree that *some* measures are called for. Only the most irresponsible parents would take no action at all.

Well, just as we impose standards for behavior in the realm of bein adam l'chaveiro (relationships between people), we also set standards for behavior in the realm of bein adam lamakom (relationships between man and God). When my children are older, they will have to know, for example, that I will not allow them to bring chametz into the house on Pesach. They will know that I expect them to daven and learn every day. I expect him not to sacrifice his little sister to Molech. In short, I expect a certain minimum commitment to the observance of the mitzvos. Of course, if he does more -- all the more power to him; but a minimum is expected. I believe that children need standards in order to achieve... and that applies to all realms, academic, behavioral, religious, extra-curricular, you name it.

Of course, the question then becomes how to express your expectations and make them stick without endangering the security of the child's knowledge of the parent's unconditional love. You can't just sit your kid down and tell him "Walter*, we expect you to do A, B and C, but even if you don't we still love you," because such a statement lacks the force that is necessary to tell the kid what you expect of him. It's weasly and wishy-washy.

Of course, as adults, we can separate love and approval as two separate concepts, but I'm not so certain that most adolescents can emotionally make that distinction. You can try to explain it to them, but I don't know if (at the younger ages of adolescence especially) they can really distinguish between the two. I can tell an adult that I may still love him or her even if I don't accept what they are doing. Heck, I love my mother, but I strongly disapprove of her life-long smoking habit. She knows my feelings on the matter of her smoking -- she has for a long, long time, but she also knows that I love her unconditionally. But if I ever (God forbid) caught my kid smoking (something I don't expect too -- I think we've well ingrained the anti-smoking message into our kids), I could probably tell him the same thing I tell my mother, but I don't think he'd react the same way - one is a teen and the other is nearing sixty. My mother is much, much more mature than my son - and can understand disapproval of an action much better than Walter can.

In the end, we don't want our children to go off the derech. I think that among those of us that are observant, having our children become observant is a major goal in life - if not (for some) the most important goal. But we don't want to create an atmosphere that is so overbearing that the child will rebel at the first opportunity. We want to infuse them with a Yiddishkeit that is positive, not negative. On the other hand, we don't want to give blanket approval for any and all behavior. Adoniyah turned out the way he did, the Navi tells us, because Dovid never bothered to correct him on his behavior. As usual, there has to be a happy medium somewhere in the middle. It's up to us to find that exact message.

The Wolf

* No, Walter isn't our son's name. But it is one of any number of nicknames that we sometimes call our kids.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A note about emailing me....

I enjoy it when readers email me... please feel free to do so. However, I just recently looked in my Gmail account and found a bunch of old letters from various readers. This is because I mistakenly left the GMail account as the Email address in my profile. That has been changed.

Please be advised that I rarely (if ever) check my Gmail box. The best way to reach me is at the address listed in the header of my blog or by clicking the "Email me!" link at left.

In any event, feel free to send me mail at GMail, but don't expect a quick answer. :)

The Wolf

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Don't Come For Shabbos Unless You're Frum!

I'll be the first to admit that I've never read anything by Uri Orbach, so maybe there is some humor or irony in this article that I am missing. If so, please let me know and I'll be more than happy to retract my criticism of his article.

Mr. Orbach writes about the "horrors" (my word, not his) of having non-observant guests for Shabbos. Whether it be the fact that they arrive and/or leave on Shabbos, accidentally turn on and off the lights or have a cell phone ring, he simply "cannot handle it" (his words).

Personally, I found the whole tone of the article offensive. Especially odious was this line:

Don't come visiting on Shabbat, not even if you call in advance. If we happen to invite you – please politely decline. Because it pushes our buttons. We with our "mishigas," our rules and our old habits.

Really now. If you have a problem with non-observant people, then just don't invite them. When they call in advance to say that they are coming, just tell them no, thank you.

I don't know what kind of guests Mr. Orbach has for Shabbos. If he has guests who go out of their way to flout their non-observance, then perhaps Mr. Orbach needs to find some new friends, not swear off the idea of having Shabbos guests.

In the Wolfish household, we have relatives who are non-observant. And, yes, we sometimes have them over for Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. All such guests know that they are invited to remain for Shabbos and/or Yom Tov. The fact that they don't stay is their business -- I'm not going to tie them up to stop them from leaving after the meal is over.

However, the guests that we have over are, to a degree, sensitive to our religious sensibilities. They will turn off their cell phones before arriving. Men will wear yarmulkes (no, the women don't cover their hair). Aside from the actual arrival and/or departure, they won't engage in any activity that is an outright desecration of Shabbos. They wash and bentch and answer Amen to b'rachos. In short, they know how to behave on Shabbos; and, in the event that they slip up and unknowingly do something that is forbidden, we advise them nicely and gently that that can't be done, and it doesn't happen again.

If there are kids and they turn off or on a light, so what? If they are too young to know any better, then aside from the inconvenience of having a light off, there is no real harm. If they are old enough to know better, then we simply explain to them that they cannot do what they did.

Over Succos, we had the good fortune to celebrate a Bar-Mitzvah. We have many relatives who are not observant (coming from a non-observant family, the vast majority of my relatives, including my father, fall into that category). We invited them all to come and spend the entire Yom Tov with us. Some took us up on it (ironically, it was the observant [out of town] relatives who did so) while others did not. But even the non-observant were welcome to come, celebrate the Bar Mitzvah with us and spend time with us in our succah. Did some people violate the rules of Yom Tov in coming? Definitely, but they would no doubt have driven somewhere on that beautiful Sunday morning. As long as I made it clear to them that they were welcome to come before Yom Tov and stay until after Yom Tov was over, it wasn't a problem (according to my rav).

Ultimately, as frum Jews, it is our job to spread the message that observance of the mitzvos (commandments) is a good thing. You do that through positive exposure - by showing people the beauty of a Shabbos meal, how special the Yomim Tovim are, etc. And if it means putting up with the occasional religious faux pas, so be it - I think the benefits far outweigh the negatives. As long as your guests are willing to respect your rules, then there is no reason I can think of to not have non-observant people over for Shabbos and expose them to the beauty of a Shabbos meal.

The Wolf

Tu B'Shvat Question

Why is there a custom to eat fruit on Tu B'Shvat, but no custom to eat meat on Rosh Chodesh Ellul (the Rosh HaShannah for Ma'aser B'heimah - the tithing of animals)?

The Wolf

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Sorry for the absence...

I want to thank those who wrote to me expressing concern about my absence. I have been a bit busy of late, and have also had to deal with a (non-life-threatening) medical condition. Baruch Hashem, both situations are coming under control and so I hope to be posting more often again.

The Wolf

Punishing Children for the Parent's Misdeeds

Vos Iz Neias is reporting that the children of one of the attendees of the Iranian holocaust conference have been kicked out of their school in Vienna and their father has been told that they will not be welcome in any schools in Austria.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that this is only based on one side of the story and that not all of the facts are in. However, if the plain facts of the story as presented are true (i.e. that his children were asked to leave because of his attendance), then the school is making a grave mistake.

I think we can all understand the need to ostracize someone who participates in an event such as the Iranian holocaust conference. I am in full favor of asking him to leave his shul, not giving him any kibbudim in the community, etc. I think that any and all non-violent measures should be taken against the people who participated in that event.

However, the punishment has to start and end with him alone. Punishing his children for acts that they had no control over is completely wrong. And yes, I'll agree that having his children in school is a convenience to him; but, nonetheless, the fact remains that the expulsion punishes the children for something that is completely not their fault.

The same principle can be applied to many of the yeshivos here in America. Many yeshivos today would threaten to kick children out (or refuse admission) for things that are not their fault. One such case happened with me personally -- my parents are divorced and my father is not frum. When looking for a yeshiva for me in Brooklyn after the divorce, my ba'alas t'shuva mother found that one yeshiva would only admit me on condition that I wasn't allowed any contact with my father. In another case that I am aware of, a family was threatened with expulsion from a yeshiva because they had a dog. They were told that "either the hunt goes, or you go." Considering that I went to the same yeshiva at the same time, I should consider myself lucky... we had two dogs!

But the fact of the matter is that punishing children with expulsion because of their parents' level of observance, because of household factors over which the children have no control (and, furthermore won't "corrupt" other children -- how is having a dog a danger to classmates?) is wrong - for several reasons:

Firstly, it's wrong because punishing someone for something that have no control over is simply wrong.

Secondly, it can potentially turn a child off to Judaism. Seriously, would you want to belong to a society where you will be ostracized by something your relatives may do tomorrow and over which you have no control? Do you want your children thrown out of yeshiva because your brother decides to marry a non-Jew? Or because your sister doesn't cover her hair? Of course not - every person wants to be judged on his or her own merits - not the deeds of others.

Thirdly, we see that even in the Torah there are cases where a punishment is set aside because it would affect his children. A classic example is an eid zommeim (a specific type of false witness) who gives testimony that so-and-so the Kohen's mother is a divorcee and that he is therefore not a Kohen. If he is proven to be an eid zommeim, he should be subject to the same penalty that he tried to subject the person to - i.e. that he (and his children) should be considered non-Kohanim (assuming that they were Kohanim to begin with). However, the Gemara points out that the Torah says to punish *him* and not his children - and so the punishment to him is altered to one that punishes only him and not his children.

So, to sum up, I have no problem with punishing someone who went to this conference; but the punishment has to start and end with him - not his children.

The Wolf