Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Isn't It Funny How These Stories Always Come Out Around Pesach Time?

Two years ago, it was exploding frogs. Now, it's monster-sized frogs.

Wouldn't it have been cool if the plague happened with these huge frogs?

(Or else with alligators, as the Abarbanel states).

The Wolf

It Appears I May Have To Apologize

This week's Letters To The Editor section of the Jewish Press contains the following notice:

Note to Readers: A letter appeared in last week’s issue purporting to be from a “Rabbi Rick Probstein.” We have since learned that the letter was not from someone named Rick Probstein. Though we make every effort to verify the identity of readers who submit letters for publication, the system obviously failed in this instance. We apologize for the error.

If that's truly the case, then I, too, have to offer my apologies to Rabbi Probstein. As such, if he truly did not write the letter in question, then I offer my apologies to him for identifying him as the source of the letter.

(Please note that this doesn't change my feelings about the sentiment expressed in the letter - it just means that I [and, apparently others as well] have lashed out at the wrong target.)

The Wolf

Lakewood Buses -- This Can't Be Real, Can it?

Lakewood Kollel Veib reports that there is an effort underway in Lakewood to only have Jewish bus drivers drive the kids home from Yeshiva. The Yeshiva would also supplement the drivers' salaries (above the standard salary paid by the state) to bring the pay to about thirty dollars an hour. The Yeshiva would then pass the cost along to the parents.

Personally, I'm finding this one a bit troubling. Can't the people in Lakewood see that this is something that is totally illegal and discriminatory? Don't they realize that this is just a massive lawsuit waiting to happen?

Personally, I'm wondering if there is such a serious campaign or if this is just a bunch of idle chatter. Does anyone have any concrete information on this?

The Wolf

(For an alternative take on this subject, see Rabbi Maryles' blog).

Monday, March 26, 2007

Clueless at ChabadTalk

MSNBC came out with a list of the top 50 rabbis in the America. I don't really want to debate the inclusion, exclusion or placement of any particular rabbi. I don't know enough to argue that any one rabbi belongs on the list more than any other.

However, apparently some of the folks over at ChabadTalk are upset with the list. One particular poster is upset with the #2 selection, Rabbi Krinksi of Chabad. In placing Rabbi Krinksi number two on the list, the Newsweek editors said:

Krinski has truly built a shul on every corner and brought the Chabad movement mainstream prominence. He is the leader of Chabad and its CEO.

Now, one could argue (I suppose) the merits of Rabbi Krinski and his position within Chabad. One could say he should be higher on the list, lower or should be excluded altogether. The whole list, after all, is highly subjective.

One particular poster at ChabadTalk, however, seems to think that Rabbi Krinski shouldn't be on the list -- he should be replaced with someone else. In his (her?) own words:

this couldn't be further from the truth, the Rebbe is the leader of chabad and the one sending out shluchim and making shuls not this guy.

In other words, the poster is upset that Rabbi Krinski was on the list, and that the Rebbe was excluded. When I pointed out that while *he* may believe that the Rebbe is alive, he certainly couldn't fault the Newsweek reporters for believing that he has passed on, the response I got was that, in effect, if they were going to exclude the Rebbe, then no Chabad rabbi should be on the list.

I'm not sure which is sadder: the belief that the man is physically alive, or the failure to comprehend the fact that even if (a) they consider the Rebbe physically alive or (b) simply spiritually alive, that doesn't impose any obligation on the Newsweek reporters to consider him so.

The Wolf

Non-Jews At The Seder

It's interesting how one's perspective changes as one gets older and encounters situations in life that they never thought they'd encounter.

I had the opinion (and to some degree still do) that having non-Jews by the Seder is wrong. Not wrong as is "it's forbidden, you're violating a commandment, " but wrong as in "IMHO, it's not appropriate." Now, I've been by s'darim where non-Jews were present, and I must say that they have always been curious, respectful, and have always followed the requests of the hosts.

But the story of Pesach is the story of the redemption of the Jewish people from a slavery in a situation and manner that was unique to them at that time. Certainly other cultures can appreciate and identify with a set of rituals surrounding a story of redemption from slavery or freedom from oppression; but the method used on Pesach, with it's unique symbolism and history, is as unique to Judaism as a Juneteenth celebration is to the descendants of African slavery in America. Unlike most holidays, the celebration of Pesach is more personal, since it is we, the Jews, who were rescued from Egypt. Having other people there is, well... it just seems out of place.

Such was my thinking for years. I've never had a non-Jew by my seder. They've been by my Shabbos table, in my Sukkah, dipped apple in honey with us on Rosh HaShannah and even by my Pesach table (during the non-seder meals), but not at the seder itself.

Of course, it's easy to hold an opinion in the abstract. It's when the situation hits home that you really begin to consider how important your preconceived notions are.

Case in point: my brother. My brother recently married a girl who is not Jewish. She's a very nice person (I couldn't see him marrying someone who wasn't a nice person) who is kind and caring. She's pleasant to be around and is respectful to everyone, even in the knowledge that the family wasn't thrilled with the wedding plans.

Well, this will be the first year since the wedding that we will be having a seder that she will (probably) be attending. We could always have not invited them (and their son), but we chose to do so anyway. Eeees and I figured that if we don't invite them, there is the definite possibility that my brother will not go to a seder at all. Despite his marriage, he is still obligated in the mitzvos of matzah, marror, reciting the story of the Exodus, etc. as anyone else is... by not inviting him simply because I may not want his wife present, I may well cause him to not fulfill these mitzvos at all.

In addition, we want to actively hold out the possibility that he will be chozer b'tshuva. I firmly believe in the rule that you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. Eeees and I believe in maintaining strong contact with my brother and his family in the hopes of showing them that the door is always open to his return to a observant lifestyle. We respect and interact with his wife and son in the hopes that maybe they will see the beauty of such a lifestyle and want to lead one too (granted, the chances of this happening are not very likely, but you never know). Shunning them, however, was never considered -- by shunning them you are, in effect, closing the door to the possibility of his every observing the mitzvos again.

So, Eeees and I made the choice to invite them to the seder that we are hosting this year (we're only hosting one... we're going elsewhere for the first night). I have no doubt that my sister-in-law will be the perfect guest. I have no doubt that she'll look forward to the opportunity to have her son participate in the rituals and celebrations that are a part of his heritage (even if he isn't Jewish by our definition - and even if he's too young to understand any of it). For all this, I can put aside my discomfort.

You never know which action will be the one that will influence a person to make a decision in their life. You never know what little action may influence my brother to start keeping a mitzvah -- any one. If having my sister-in-law and nephew over for the seder tips him even slightly in the direction of deciding to stay home from work one Shabbos, or think twice about eating something non-kosher, or putting up a mezuzzah in his home, then it's worth it.

(Besides, my nephew is sooooooo cute. :) )

The Wolf

ADDENDUM: I just want to make it clear (since, as Baal Devarim pointed out, I didn't in the post above) that my relationship with my brother is not based on our hopes to have him become observant. I have other family members with whom I have absolutely no chance of ever influencing them to become observant -- and nonetheless we maintain contact with them, have them over at our house, etc. 'The relationship is not about trying to convert people to observance of the mitzvos -- it's about family and friendship.

That being said, it is no secret that we would love for our brother to become more observant - he knows it. But it's also not the basis of our relationship. He knows that we accept him -- and his wife and son (and any future children) -- even if he never becomes observant at all.

The Wolf

All Aboard the Matzah Bus!!

Yeshiva World brings us the story of a school bus that was converted into a Matzah factory. (The news story video can be seen here.)

Personally, I'm kind of shocked, but I've also become jaded to this sort of thing. Here is an example of someone doing something incredibly stupid and unsafe in order to make a buck - without any concern for their own safety, the safety of the people who work for them or the safety of their neighbors or community. Converting a bus into a matzah factory? With a live gas line? I think "Chaim Yankel" (the YW commentator) stated it best:

Why can’t people just do things, by the book? Building and fire codes are there for a reason.

This is a tremendous chillul Hashem. She tells the reporter, that its in the bus, because its a religous bakery. Oy..

To be honest, while the religious aspect of it may get a lot of play (and, indeed, cause a chillul Hashem), I don't think that the person was doing this to make a religious point or serve a community that would otherwise have to do without matzos for Pesach (for this, see the story of the mikvah in Postville). This was simply someone who was looking for a quick way to make a buck, nothing more.

Personally, I hope they throw the book at whomever was doing this.

The Wolf

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Repeating (Family) History

I have the good fortune to have a younger sister, whom I will refer to in this post as Skipper.* Skipper is about three years younger than I am. Of the two of us, she is, by far, the smarter one. Oh, there may be times that I can grasp a concept (especially an abstract one) quicker than she can; but, on the whole, when it comes down to practical intelligence, she is heads and shoulders above me. For just about any problem that we encounter, she'll usually have three solutions to a problem thought up before I've even worked out one.

You'd think that she always knew how smart she was... but that's not the case. When she was younger, Skipper was sure that she was quite dumb. I don't know where she got that silly idea from, but as a child and a teen, she was convinced that she was not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Now, I always knew that she was quite smart - even as a teen. I knew this because when we weren't trying to kill each other (as teens often do) I would help her out with her school work. I helped her to understand Rashi on Chumash. I helped her out with Algebra, Geometry and Trig. She would often throw up her hands in frustration and yell out that these subjects were impossible and that there was no way that she could understand them. y=mx+b?! A squared plus B squared equals C squared? Logarithms? Pi-R squared times height? Forget it, she would say. However, as a big brother, I tried my best to help her understand the concepts and, with some hard work on her part, she managed to pass high school.

Skipper didn't go to college after high school. She got a job teaching in pre-schools (she *loves* children) and eventually went on to get married and have kids of her own.

About seven years ago, Skipper decided to go to college and get a degree. She ended up attending a combined B.S.-M.S. program at a good college (no, not Touro) and graduated as the class valedictorian. Today, she's a working professional.

I don't know at what point in her journey she realized that she is quite intelligent, but at some point, she finally came to accept what I (and countless others) had been telling her all along -- that she can do anything that she sets her mind to. You don't end up as the valedictorian in a Master's program by being a dummy.

There was a point to this whole story. It's coming... just bear with me.

Your friendly Wolf has a non-lucrative side job teaching Kriah to pre-Bar-Mitzvah boys. It's something that I've been doing for quite a while now and it's a job that I enjoy. Skipper's oldest son (I'll call him Velvel for this post -- and no, that's not his name) is now twelve years old and for a while I've been teaching him to lain (read the Torah) at his Bar Mitzvah. He, like his mother, is quite intelligent and can do just about anything he sets his mind to. I generally meet with him twice a week and last night was our night.

Imagine my surprise when I walk in the door and find Velvel in frustration over the fact that he can't understand the Gemara he's learning in school. He was complaining to his mother that he can't do it, it's too hard, he doesn't have the head for it, etc. Skipper was doing her best to try to convince him that he can do it.

Normally, I don't get involved in family disputes -- especially when it doesn't involve my kids. However, at this point, I felt I needed to break in. I told Skipper that I found the whole scene a bit amusing, since, I told her, I could have sworn that I heard this tirade before. I was positive that I once heard someone tell me that they couldn't possibly understand the subject material, that it was too hard, that they were just plain "too dumb" to understand it. At that, Skipper smiled knowingly. Later on, I told Velvel about our childhood experiences and informed him that in my humble opinion, he was quite intelligent and could do just about anything he put his mind to.

Isn't it funny how our kids become what we were when we were younger?

The Wolf

*Skipper is not a derogatory term. My sister has a way of keeping a million things straight at a time. She runs a "tight ship" at home. Somehow, between school, work, raising a bunch of kids, caring for our mother and various other assorted projects, she somehow manages to get everything done in her house and not drown in all the work. Since she can manage all these tasks and still keep her ship afloat, she has earned the title "Skipper."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Conditional Divorces?

I came across this rather disparagingly-titled article in Ha'aretz. It discusses the case of a woman in Israel who received her get several years earlier, with a condition attached that stated that any issues that had been discussed at the outset in the beis din (rabbinical court) have to be continued there. Recently, a dispute broke out over the education of their children (which was not discussed in the beis din, according to a representative for the woman) and the woman went to the (secular) Family Court to have the problem adjudicated. The man claimed that this was a violation of the agreement and went to a Tel Aviv beis din who ruled that by going to the secular courts, she may have violated the condition and invalidated her get.

The big problem here is that the woman has since remarried and had a child. If the get in invalidated, then she would have to divorce her (second) husband and her child could be declared a mamzer. She appealed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, but the case has been delayed for a year already.

As the article states:

The delay also puts the woman in an impossible situation: If it is eventually decided that the get is invalid, she is already forbidden to have conjugal relations with her present husband.

The rest of the article goes on to describe (unflatteringly) some of the edicts that R. Eliyashiv has decreed in the past few years. I don't really wish to discuss that... my feelings about both the edicts and the disparaging of a talmid chochom (even if you disagree with him) are well known. What I do want to discuss is the very idea of a conditional divorce itself.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I am no expert in Hilchos Gittin. You certainly won't find me sitting on a beis din that terminates marriages - I am certainly not learned enough, nor am I particularly anxious to take on the responsibility. However, one thing which I am pretty sure that I remember learning is that a conditional divorce can only be valid if the condition is limited. The classic case is someone issuing a divorce on condition that the woman never drink wine or never visits her father's house is null and void, because it is not a document of separation -- she is still bound to him forever by the condition. However, a temporary condition is valid (i.e. she not drink wine for thirty days), since at the end of the condition period, she is fully separated from him.

Now, I don't know if the condition in the get mentioned at the start of this post was only temporary -- I'd have to assume that it was (and that the members of the beis din know halacha better than I do). But, to be honest, I find the whole idea of allowing conditional gittin to begin with to be bad public policy. The situation that the woman now finds herself in is surely an untenable situation -- she doesn't have her first marriage, she doesn't really have her second marriage either and is simply stuck until the Supreme Court hears her case (why does it take a year, anyway?!). It's bad enough when there are situations when a husband will not give a get to begin with, but it's even worse when he gives a conditional get and can trap her ex post facto on a real or imagined violation of a condition.

I certainly don't have a problem with a husband having a say in where his children are educated. If there is a dispute as to where the child should go to school, it certainly should be adjudicated in the agreed upon manner -- and there should be penalties that can be applied to those who break the agreements, but invalidating a get should not be one of them. The potential for damage to not only the woman but to her new husband and any children born of the marriage is just simply too great.

In short, let's leave a get to what it should be - a davar hakores (a thing that separates) - and not something that leaves the woman still bound to her first husband and the potential for multiple ruined lives down the road.

The Wolf

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Note On RSS Feeds...

Just a word of warning...

I've been going back and labeling my old posts. This may cause some of them to reappear as new on your RSS feed.

The Wolf


It's been two years since I made my first post to this blog. In that time, I've learned a lot about Judaism and the Jewish community:

I've learned that many things in the Jewish community are not black-and-white -- as I once thought they were.

I've learned that there are others like me who have questions and concerns about textual literalism, science and hashkafah, the expertise (and lack of it in certain areas) of our Sages (Chazal) and the direction that some segments of the Jewish community have taken.

I've learned that there is, in fact, a wide range of opinion on issues within the Jewish community and that it's not always "my way or the highway."

I've learned that Jews don't have to fit a certain mold to be good Jews; that all people, no matter their level of observance, have good qualities and bad qualities, and that Chazal were dead-on correct when they said that you *can* learn something from everyone -- regardless of their level of observance and learning.

It's been a quite a journey -- I've enjoyed every moment of writing this blog, and hope to continue to do so for many more years to come. I can honestly say that this blog has changed me -- and I do believe I have been changed for the better.

I want to say thank you to everyone who has read my posts, to everyone who has commented and everyone who has referred me to others. Thank you for the comments, for the private emails, for the advice, the criticism (yes, even the biting criticism from you, Mis-nagid!) and the encouragement.

Lastly, I want to thank Eeees for being there for me all the time. She has provided valuable insight and material for this blog and it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to do this without her insight or support. Thank you dear, for everything you do for me.

The Wolf

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Does Secular Knowledge Cause People To Lose Their Faith?

Well, the answer to that is, it depends.

There is a fascinating interview in the current issue of Biblical Archeology Review. Editor Herschel Shanks interviewed four people who have done extensive work in archeology and/or biblical scholarship:

  • Bart Ehrman, a popular BAS lecturer who lost his faith
  • James Strange, archaeologist and Baptist minister
  • Lawrence Shiffman, Dead Sea Scroll scholar, Orthodox Jew
  • William Dever, archaeologist, former evangelical preacher, lost his faith, became a Reform Jew and is now an athiest

In the course of the interview, it emerges that Ehrman and Dever had very strict, literal interpretations of the Bible. As Ehrman put it:

I have a fundamentalist background. I had a very high view of Scripture as the inerrant word of God, no mistakes of any kind—geographical or historical. No contradictions. Inviolate.

My scholarship early on as a graduate student showed me that in fact these views about the Bible were wrong. I started finding contradictions and finding other discrepancies and started finding problems with the Bible. What that ended up doing for me was showing me that the basis of my faith, which at that time was the Bible, was problematic. So I shifted from being an evangelical Christian to becoming a fairly mainline liberal Protestant Christian.

In the end, when he was confronted with questions of theodicy, he lost his faith entirely.

Dever had a similar literalist background. He states (bolding mine):

I was ordained a minister at 17, put myself through undergraduate school and on through divinity school, through Harvard, then a congregation. I have 13 years’ experience as a parish minister and two theological degrees. For me, it was this typical Protestant conundrum: It’s all true or none of it is true. My sainted mother once said to me, If I can’t believe that the whale swallowed Jonah, I can’t believe any of it.

After his graduation, he moved to Israel and worked there for many years. When confronted with contradictions and contrary evidence, his faith was destroyed.

On the other hand, Strange and Schiffman don't hold to literalist views. Schiffman goes on to state relate an even which underscores his non-literalism:

A guy came to interview me recently for some TV program about Adam and Eve. So I said that the story of Adam and Eve is like a microcosm of human relations between a man and a woman, about people and God, and about good and evil. After about five minutes, the guy turns off the recorder and says “I don’t understand. Everybody else I interviewed is talking about—Where is Eden? Was there really one human being in the beginning?” I said that is not what this is about. There are major challenges to the Bible if you take it literally, but that is not what matters. That isn’t what it means to be a believing Jew.

Strange, too, doesn't take everything the Bible says literally, and he, too, kept his faith while studying.

I find this quite interesting, especially when it is applied to the Orthodox Jewish community. To those who believe that lice don't come from eggs, or that the moon landings were faked or that the sun goes behind a barrier every night, they are going to face a rude awakening when they discover that things are not as they've been told. Having accepted the premise that everything that Chazal say is infallible, and that Chazal had perfect knowledge of science, they may not be able to accept the fact that they can be proven wrong. And even if they close their eyes and refuse to see the evidence, their children or their grandchildren will. On the other hand, by willing to be flexible in your interpretation of ancient texts*, one can easily accommodate new challanges, ideas and evidence that arise without having to suffer the major shock that can cause one to lose their faith, as happened to Dever and Ehrman.

It's the attitude that "it's all true or none of it is true," which is prevalent among many fundamentalist Orthodox Jews, that causes all the problems. In a discussion regarding the Rambam and science, it was put to me this way: "If the Rambam could be found to be in error regarding his astronomy, then who is to say that he is not in error everywhere else in the Mishneh Torah. How would we have any authoritative basis for halacha at all?"

Of course, this is all very specious. One does not have to take an "all-or-nothing" approach to any ancient text. Why should the fact that the Rambam is wrong about the diameter of the sun affect anything he says regarding Hilchos Yibum? Obviously, they shouldn't - one area is halacha and the other is science. Just as we don't expect our engineers to be legal experts, and yet we still rely on them to build safe bridges, so too we should not hold Chazal to perfect scientific knowledge in order to arrive at a valid halachic decision.

In the end, I found this interview quite enlightening and it reinforced my belief that literalism is, in the end, an obstacle to maintaining one's faith, not a safeguard to it.

The Wolf

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Rant on Parental Responsibility and My Son's Classmates

Some recent events have forced Eeees and I to have a talk with Walter, our oldest, about birds, bees and other similar topics. He is approaching an age where he has to learn to cope with certain urges and understand certain feelings that his body is giving him. He has to learn how to properly deal with women and what are the healthy and unhealthy ways of dealing with them.

During the conversation, the topic took a detour from him to his classmates. To be honest, I was kind of surprised to hear the things that I heard. I've been told that the vast majority of his classmates spend a fair amount of their free time discussing "hot babes" with each other. Some of them have pictures of "hot babes" on their cellphones, including some that are unclothed. Many of them, it seems, have seen movies or television shows that are highly inappropriate (IMHO) for thirteen-year-old boys. All this in a yeshiva that, while, not at the outmost fringes of the right-wing is certainly on that side of center.

To be honest, I'm kind of shocked and a bit angry. I'm shocked that there are parents that are so clueless as to what their children are doing. I'm not saying that Walter is an angel -- heaven knows (pun intended) that he's not -- he's got his own teenage issues to deal with -- but I can honestly say that we have a pretty good handle on what he sees, listens to and reads, and we do screen for inappropriate material. We didn't let him see the latest (fourth) Harry Potter movie because we felt the bath scene with Moaning Myrtle was somewhat inappropriate for his age. Maybe in another year or two... but not yet. I know that most (all?) of his classmates have no doubt seen it. One kid in his class carries around episodes of Family Guy (a funny show, but not for kids) on his MP3 player. The kids in the class talk about Borat (they saw Borat??!!) and some of the reported homosexual content in the movie (I haven't seen it, so I can't comment on it one way or the other. However, according to the report from CommonSenseMedia, it's fairly explicit).

Do parents know what their kids are doing? My son sometimes complains that we won't let him watch this or that. But in the end, we believe that it's for his benefit and that he'll thank us in the end. After all, isn't that what responsible parents do -- shield their children from things that are inappropriate?

I'm also a bit angry, but I suppose that it's somewhat my own fault. I'm angry because for years the yeshiva has been making me feel (or, perhaps more correctly, I've been *allowing* the yeshiva to make me feel) like a sub-standard parent because we have a television in the home and we allow our kids to watch DVDs, read secular books, etc. But now, I see what other kids in the class are doing and, with perhaps one other exception, I find that our child is probably the most "shielded" kid in the class -- and I'm angry. I'm angry because (a) I feel like I've been stigmatized by the administration for no reason and (b) instead of needing to screen the other kids from mine, I find now that all along it's been my kid who has been needing screening from the other kids! And yet, Eeees and I were the ones who were told that we run a "liberal household" by a former principal at the school. If only he knew what would become of this class five years later!

I just don't get it. Who is in the wrong here? The "good parents" who "don't have a television" or "don't watch movies" but have their kids watching things that are highly inappropriate and who have pornographic pictures on their cell phones; or me, who openly has a television, who openly goes to movies (although my kids don't) and who does his level best our guide our children in what they should watch and see and try to teach them that some media are just inappropriate for them at the present time?

The Wolf