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