Thursday, January 31, 2008

Science, from a Yated Reader

Oh, man, there are some weeks that the Yated is a gold mine of blog material. This week is one of them. I could probably spend the whole week blogging on this issue, but I’ll restrict myself (for now) to one letter to the editor. Here is a letter, titled “Science” (with the quotes) from yesterday’s edition. All typos are mine (with the exception of the misspelling of the word “pursue” at the end).

A. Stone was dead-on in his observation regarding the arrogance of weather reporters. This arrogance is not limited to weathermen, but extends to all scientists in all fields of science. This is a profession where most scientific data is disproved within a decade of their release, yet, in each generation, these people somehow delude themselves to believe that they are different, that their ideas stand at the pinnacle of science.

This cycle has been going on for thousands of years, yet none of these scientists have ever learned their lesson. They are constantly correcting their own mistakes. To realize this, all you have to do is open up any science publication and you will notice the phrase “Now we know….” Written over and over, year after year! If you look closely at science, most successful scientific discoveries are trial and error discoveries, or “recipe” discoveries. We took patient A who had disease B and gave him medicine C and he recovered; therefore substance C treats malady B. This prompted Paul Valery, a noted French essayist, to write that “science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. The rest is literature.”

When scientific theories are not based on trial-and-error techniques, they are almost always wrong. For example, if a scientist would have been asked exactly how medicine C would affect the patient, he would invariably be eventually proven wrong. Here are some of the predictions of this kind to look back on:

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be attainable.” (Albert Einstein, 1932)

“A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.” (The New York Times, 1936)

“Scientists predict cure for allergies is near.” (Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1982)

“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” (Yale University, 1929)

Sometimes, science goes a step farther and makes sweeping predictions about the future. These are the funniest to look back on. Of course, the scientists quickly forget these predictions, or give us an arrogant analysis. “Well, then we believed A and B, but now we know…”

Who remembers the prediction of the coming ice age in the ‘70s, which made the front cover of several national publications? Who remembers global famine, resource depletion, or overpopulation? And, of course, we have the following masterpieces from the great New York Times:

“Earthquakes may engulf all of Europe.” (April 8, 1906)

“Rats [!] may destroy the human race; man must drive out or be driven out.” (July 7, 1908)

“British experts say deaf age is coming; New Yorkers may be first to lose their hearing.” (July 26, 1928)

“Man’s war on disease sweeps on to victory; few [battles] remain to be won.” (June 15, 1927)

So, as we persue (sic) all the dire scientific data of our impending global barbeque, pardon me as I guffaw loudly.

Professor J. Sherman
Psychopharmaceutical Development Specialist,
GlaxoSmithKline Inc.

I found the letter mildly amusing until I saw the signature at the end. That was when I burst into laughter. If this fellow is a “Psychopharmaceutical Development Specialist” at GlaxoSmithKline, you may want to reconsider some using of their products. In any event, I’m fairly certain that “Professor” is an academic title, not a personal one (such as “doctor.”). GSK doesn’t hire people to be professors, only colleges do.

In any event, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this letter. It sounds like a poorly written kiruv primer. The Professor makes the assumption that if a scientist says something, then that’s the opinion of “science” (by which I suppose he means the scientific community) and when it’s disproved, then that proves that all of science must be wrong. He puts up the straw man of science claiming to be all-knowing and infallible when it never makes such a claim – indeed, one of the principles of the scientific method is that any scientific hypothesis *must* be falsifiable.

He goes on to state that when science doesn’t rely on trial-and-error, it almost always is “proven wrong.” In reality, however, all scientific inquiry (by definition) is done through trial and error and/or observation. If not, then it is not scientific.

In addition, the Professor seems to be making the same mistake that Rav Uren Reich made a few years back when he disparaged science. At the height of the controversy surrounding Rabbi Slifkin, Rav Reich said:

These same scientists who tell you with such clarity what happened sixty-five million years ago – ask them what the weather will be like in New York in two weeks’ time! “Possibly, probably, it could be, maybe” – ain itam hadavar, they don’t know.

In short, he says that because they can’t predict the future, then anything they say must be suspect. It’s kind of like a person saying that the computer I’m using to type this post on can’t possibly exist because Bill Gates said that no one would ever need more than 640K of RAM. Since Bill Gates was wrong, certainly nothing the computer engineers tell us can be believed.

Interestingly, even some of the quotes that Professor Sherman uses are suspect. Take the quote about earthquakes engulfing Europe. If you go to the actual New York Times article, you’ll find that his quote is only half the title. Here’s the complete title:

Earthquake May Ingulf (sic) all Europe, Says German Scientist; Berlin Professor Finds in French Mine Disaster a Symptom of the Approaching Cataclysm --- American Geologists Not Quite So Alarmist in Their Views.

So, it was the opinion of one scientist, not the opinion of “science.” Furthermore, if you actually read the first two paragraphs of the article, you’ll find that the scientist who made the prediction was an astronomer, not a geologist. So, what you have is a scientist that is making a prediction outside of his field; and his opinion is disputed by other scientists who *are* experts in the field.
In addition, you have to keep in mind that the New York Times of 1906 was not the New York Times of a century later. Journalistic standards of 1906 were much lower than they are today. Just because the New York Times chose to print something hardly makes it the scientific equivalent of Torah MiSinai.

Another of his quotes is the 1936 quote from the Times that rockets will never leave the Earth’s atmosphere. This quote is referenced often on the web, yet, when I searched the Times archive from 1900 to 1949, I could not find the quote that he attributes to the Times. My guess is that it’s an urban legend (or else it’s a misstatement of the famous editorial against Goddard in 1920 – but that wasn’t written by a scientist, it was written by an editorial writer).

What is highly comical, I suppose, about this letter is that is written by someone who purports to be scientist, and yet claims that “all scientists in all fields of science” are arrogant. And what's utterly sad about it is that there are thousands of people who are going to read his letter and, because they don't know any better, will say to themselves, "yep, science is just a load of horse-hockey." And yet, these same people will go on with their lives, living into their seventies and eighties (and possibly beyond) on average, they probably won't die of scarlet fever, whooping cough, malaria or smallpox, they will be able to store food for longer than a day in their refrigerators, get where they are going in planes, trains and automobiles, be able to communicate with each other via telephone and the Internet, and, in general, benefit from the many good things that God has provided for us through science and the scientific method.

The Wolf

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

We Have Met the Enemy... And He is Us!

A cursory reading of the Jewish "populist media" (blogs, letters to the editors of newspapers, etc.) would seem to indicate that there are a plethora of "crises" plaguing the Orthodox Jewish community. From truly important subjects such as child molestation and shidduchim to the downright silly (remember the "Gedolim card crisis?") we seem to abound in crises.

Yet, after giving the matter some thought, I began to wonder how many of these situations are truly a crisis caused by external forces and how many of them are self-inflicted.

An example of a crisis from an external force would be the case of an agunah (in the classic sense, not the modern one). A woman whose husband went on a business trip and never returned is in a crisis situation which was caused by an external force -- her husband's disappearance.

The shidduch crisis, on the hand, is either entirely self-inflicted, or else greatly exacerbated by our own actions. It's a crisis that doesn't have to be -- if we wanted to change our behavior, we could either eliminate or greatly ease the problem. I'd like to take a look at several of the "crises" that face the Orthodox community and see whether or not there really is a true crisis, or one that is caused by our own behavior.

Shidduch Crisis

Since I brought it up already, I might as well start with the shidduch crisis. There are those who state that the shidduch crisis is mainly a demographic one – that there are simply more boys available for marriage than there are girls. That may be the case, or it may not. To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve seem some people who try to explain the problem mathematically, but I’m not certain that the math holds up to scrutiny. (To be fair, I’m not certain that it doesn’t either – I haven’t given the matter a really close look.) However, even if the problem is largely demographic, there is a great deal that we are doing to exacerbate the situation. We “check out” our prospective dates looking for the silliest of things (do they have plastic tablecloths on Shabbos? How would you describe the girl’s communication skills? Loafers vs. laces? How heavy is her mother?(!!!)) Instead of checking for pertinent matters (is s/he a kind person? What type of sense of humor do they have? Is there a family history of genetic illness [yes, IMHO, that’s a legitimate question]). We have singles that don’t go on dates because the prospective date doesn’t score a 100% on some odd, quirky test that they develop. And, heaven forbid they should even *consider* someone from outside their immediate grouping. And the matter is only getting worse, not better. We’ve come to the point where there are organizations that are *offering money* to people who set up boys with girls who are older than they are.

What we need to do is to make it *easier* for people to date each other, not harder. If Rabannim want to ban something, they should ban silly questions as a pre-date condition. Seriously… there are certain questions that a prospective employer cannot ask (in the United States) when evaluating a potential candidate for a job, right? Well, why not have a set of questions that you are not allowed to ask (or, even better, a limited set of questions that you are allowed to ask) of a potential shidduch before the first date? Who knows? The couple might even find that after the first date they are interested enough to overlook the fact that their prospective in-laws use plastic plates on Shabbos. Maybe upon seeing the prospective bride’s face, the young bachur won’t care as much about the fact that her father doesn’t wear the brand of hat that he prefers (or even one at all). By banning “stupid questions” before the first date, I think that it will be much easier for couples to meet and make the necessary compromises to get married. It will also allow couples to focus on the factors that are truly important and not the stupid factors that often stand in the way of shidduchim.

Conclusion: Possibly self-inflicted. But even if it isn’t, we certainly are doing a great deal to exacerbate the situation.

Tuition Crisis

I was originally going to lump this together with the Parnassah crisis, but I decided against it, as I realized that they really were two separate issues.

I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on this because, quite simply, I’ve never run a school, have never tried to run a school, and aside from the very basic generalities, don’t know what it takes to run a school (from a financial standpoint). All I know is that my kids’ schools charge a *large* amount for tuition. I know that the school has to pay the salaries of the staff and employees. They have to either pay rent or for infrastructure. They have to maintain various forms of insurance. Books, computers, furniture and other supplies do not magically appear – they cost money. Schools have very real expenses.

But do we need so many schools? I’ve often wondered if schools could combine operations and save money in the process. Do we truly need twenty Bais Ya’akovs in Brooklyn? Could not two or more of them combine their resources, buy a larger building and save money? My guess would be that they could (although I invite all the education experts out there to correct me if it’s not really feasible – I could easily be wrong) but that they don’t want to. We’re currently in a stage where we are *increasing* the number of schools, not decreasing them. New schools are added for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s because a staff member (or a group of parents) of a school don’t like what they have in their current school and break away to start a new one. Sometimes it’s because parents can’t find a school to fit their narrow hashkafah. But rarely, I think (in New York anyway) is the reason a logistic one (overcrowding in an existing school, no existing school geographically close, etc.).

So, is it possible to combine schools? For example, do we need 10 girl’s schools in Boro Park within a five block radius? What if (just to pick two names at random as an example – if these don’t work, then just pick other names) Bobov and Pupa combine their schools? Seriously. Have them teach a core curriculum and have separate classes that the girls will go to for studies in their own chassidus. They girls will have chumash classes, navi classes and whatever else combined. At some point in the day, the Bobov girls will have classes in Bobov chassidus and the Pupa girls will have classes in Pupa chassidus. Secular studies can certainly be combined as well. This same approach could also be applied to the myriad of boys’ yeshivas that are out there as well. I’m not advocating a one-size-fits-all approach – obviously *that* won’t work. But this much diversity seems to produce an a large degree of duplication of work and monetary wastage.

Of course, there is also the issue that in many sectors of the frum community, education today is not what it was twenty years ago. Extracurricular activities, services for special needs children (disabled, learning impaired, special education, etc.), education in computers and other “modern” subjects that didn’t exist years ago, and probably half a dozen other extras that I missed have all driven up the cost of education. And while it is true that the state probably pays for a portion of these, I have little doubt that the schools cover a fair portion of it as well. Since today’s schools provide far more (in terms of services) than they did years ago, it makes sense that tuition costs will rise faster than the rate of inflation. However, to reiterate what I said at the beginning of this post – I don’t really know enough to make an educated guess as to what it really costs to run a school. These are just my thoughts on the matter, and I could easily be well off-target in my assumptions. I invite readers who do have education backgrounds to chime in.

Conclusion: I don’t know if this is truly a crisis or if it is self-inflicted. But I think we can probably do more to alleviate the situation.

Parnassah Crisis

As anyone who reads the “Readers Write” section of the Yated knows, there is a parnassah crisis. People simply cannot seem to earn enough money to support their families in a (minimally) middle-income lifestyle. Part of the problem could certainly be attributed to the “Tuition Crisis” listed above. Requiring parents to pay $8000 (on average) per kid for six kids will put a crimp in the budget of all but the wealthiest of people. But there seems to be more to the problem than that.

Part of the problem, IMHO, stems from the fact that higher education is devalued and discouraged (and, in many cases, outright prohibited) in large segments of the frum community. While one certainly can do well without a college education, the fact remains that it is far easier to earn a larger salary with a college education (and even more with an advanced degree). While it is true that correlation does not prove causation, there is still an undeniable correlation between the amount of education that one has and the amount of money that they earn. By cutting off higher education, you are limiting large sections of the population to low salaries. Couple that with the larger than average size families that are common in Orthodox families and you have a devastating combination.

By prohibiting higher education, we are, in effect, forbidding people from entering certain professions. Law, medicine, dentistry, therapy, nursing, accounting, finance and many other professions are utterly impossible (usually with good reason) to get into without a Bachelor’s degree at minimum (and, in many cases, an advanced degree). By discouraging (or outright prohibiting) people from making the investment in these fields, we are preventing them from reaping the rewards. In addition (and I know this is a bit off track), we hurt ourselves as a community by telling people that they cannot enter these fields. We *need* frum doctors, lawyers, therapists, etc. We *need* professionals who fully understand the unique religious needs of our community. If they truly had their way and there were no frum doctors, etc., we’d be a much poorer community – and I don’t mean monetarily.

Of course, there are some sectors in frum society that go beyond this. Not only do they think that secular education is bad, they disagree with the entire notion of working for a living to begin with. They feel that it’s better for a man to sit and learn all day rather than work. As such, they put extreme pressure upon men to stay in beis midrash and learn, even if they aren’t really suited to the task. This is especially true in Israel, where in order to work, you have to serve in the army. Since, in many segments, buchrim are prevented from working from working, they can’t even gain minimal employment, let alone professional. And naturally, if people can’t work, then poverty will set in.

Does this mean that I think that everyone should go to college and pursue a Bachelor’s (or advanced degree)? Of course not. Not everyone is suited for college. In addition, some people can make a nice living without a higher education. However, not everyone can do so – and, in fact, I would argue that most people can’t. There are only so many plumbers, for example, that a community can support.

Does this mean that I think that no one should learn in beis midrash? Of course not. But extended learning in beis midrash should be restricted to those who show an aptitude for it, are willing to make the necessary sacrifices for it, and who want to become the gedolim of the next generation. Just as in the secular world, where entrance to Ph.D. programs are restricted to those who have the aptitude to succeed in the field, who are willing to make the necessary sacrifices for advanced intensive study, and who are prepared to spend the rest of their professional lives in the fields that they are studying, so too we should make the same restrictions in the yeshiva world. As a community, we should work to produce people who are poskim and experts in halacha. But we should only be supporting those who are actively in pursuit of that goal, not people who are merely benchwarmers in yeshivas.

Conclusion: Largely self-inflicted.

I hadn’t counted on this post being so long, and there are still several crises that I haven’t even gotten to address yet. I’ll have to save those for a future post.

What do you think? Do you agree with what I said? Do you think that I’m totally off base? Let me hear from you.

The Wolf

Personal Request: How to go about getting a Get

No, not for me (thank God).

I have a non-religious relative who divorced her husband a few years ago. While the couple did obtain a civil divorce, they did not obtain a get. This relative of mine (the wife) is looking to move on and would like to obtain a get. Her ex-husband has agreed to give her one.

While they might be able to come into Brooklyn, they would like to have this done in Nassau County if at all possible. Can someone please point me in the direction of a Bais Din who will be able to help.

Lastly, my relative also inquired about the cost of a get. I told her that I had no idea. Any ideas on a ballpark figure of what a get should cost?

Thanks for your help.

The Wolf

EDIT: My relative also included a link to an organization ( Does anyone know anything about them? Reliability?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Don't Attend This Wedding -- Your Kids Might Not Get Married!

An alert reader brought to my attention a thread on Imamother. In this thread, a person comments that a relative of theirs (not an immediate relative) is getting married (for the first time) wearing a green dress.

OK, so it's a little strange and unusual. But hey, it's her wedding -- she can get married in any color (or colors) that she likes. A wedding where the bride wears green is perfectly valid halachically. So, as long as her groom is OK with it (and, I suppose whomever is paying for the gown) then there shouldn't be any problem, right?

Well, most of the commentators in the thread seem to agree with that sentiment. It's her day, let her celebrate as she wishes. However, there was one interesting response:

If it was someone in MY family, I'd seriously consider never speaking to that side again. I wouldn't want it to get out that a relative of mine who I am close to did something SO non-conformist at a wedding. If people think I'm close to them, maybe they'd even think I myself would consider such a thing -- it could wreak havoc for my kids shidduchim, ch"v!

Seriously, I would consider not attending the wedding to make sure that her poor choice in wedding dresses does not ch"v taint your good name.

So, this is what it's come to? Simply attending a wedding where the bride doesn't wear a white gown is grounds for having your children rejected for a potential shidduch? Yes, I understand that some people are sticklers for tradition, but don't you think that this is going too far? We've caused people to become so afraid of the slightest non-conformity that they wouldn't attend a wedding of a family member simply because of the color of the bride's gown.


The Wolf

Monday, January 28, 2008

Frozen In Time -- A Perfect Example

Last week, I posted about how some sections of our community seem to be "frozen in time." Oddly enough, I was given just the perfect example of this over the weekend.

It was reported last week that a group called “Council for the Purity of the Camp” in Israel arranged for men-only driving lessons in Israel, thus sparing Chareidim from having to take driving classes with immodestly clad (secular) women. I personally don't have a problem with that. If they want to take segregated classes, that's fine and well. However, there was an interesting coda to the article:

[Rabbi Yitzchok] Ayneh Also told the Jpost that there was no need for a special women-only course since “Chareidi women are not supposed to drive.”

“In America it is accepted that Chareidi women drive. But in many communities here in the Holy Land, if a woman drives her husband is kicked out of the synagogue.”

Over on Yeshiva World, the discussion pretty much ignored the idea of sex-segregated classes (which was the point of the article) and focused on the last point. One commentator suggested that banning women from driving was a "beutiful (sic) hidur of tzinius" and should be emulated. When pressed for some halachic justification for banning women from driving, he came up with this:

the chazon ish who said that a car is a keli ish and that therefore women should not be driving it.

Now, I don't know if the commentator is correct. I don't know if the Chazon Ish really made such a ruling or if it really serves as the justification in those communities today. However, *if it does*, it provides a great example to my "frozen in time" point.

The Chazon Ish died in 1953. The world is 1953 (which was 55 years ago) was a much different place than it is today. Back then, cars were much more expensive (relative to the yearly earnings of an individual) and *very few* families had more than one car*. Because of the nature of the society in which we live, most often it was the man of the family who drove the car. As a result, there was little need for most women to learn to drive. Consequently, the number of female drivers was very low compared to the number of male drivers. That being the realia of the situation, the case could be made that a car was a k'li ish.

However, that is not the world that we live in today. Today many families own two (or more) cars. Today, many more women drive -- even with their husbands sitting next to them in the passenger seat. One would be hard pressed to make the case today that a car is exclusively (or even predominantly) a k'li ish. That's just not the society that we live in. Today, cars are driven in large numbers by women and, in fact, cars are *specifically marketed* to women. The world has changed -- but yet certain sectors of our community still seem to be frozen in time.**

The Wolf

* The same could be said of many products. Remember the line in Back To The Future when Marty tells his mother and grandfather that he has three televisions in his house? His grandfather thinks he's kidding because no one had more then one back in 1955.

** What's even odder is that given the fact that these same communities accept nishtanu hat'vaim (that nature has changed) to explain discrepancies between Chazal's science and ours, you'd think they'd be open to the idea of society and the world around them changing.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Steam Pipe Judaism

There's an old joke that goes like this:

One Shabbos morning, a fellow walks into a shul that he's never been in before. He finds that he likes the davening... the people don't talk too much, they're friendly, they sing all the tunes he's familiar with, and so on. The service goes on pretty much as he was familiar with... with one exception. Whenever anyone went up to the aron (Ark) to take out or put away the Torah, he would bow to the right. He was curious about this custom, but didn't say anything about this strange and heretofore-unheard-of custom for fear of making waves.

And so, a few weeks go by. He eventually gets p'shicha (the honor of taking out and putting back the Torah) and, not wanting to upset the people in his new shul, also bows to the right when taking out the Torah and putting it back after the reading. Finally, he can contain his curiosity no longer. After davening, he goes over to the gabbai of the shul and asks him about this curious custom of bowing to the right. "That's just the minhag (custom) here," the gabbai told him. "I don't know the origin of the custom." So, he asks a few other shul officials, including the rabbi. None of them can answer the question... all they know is that it's always been done that way. Finally, someone tells him to ask Shmuel. Shmuel is ninety years old, the oldest person in the shul. He's been with the congregation longer than anyone else who is currently alive. Certainly, he's told, if anyone knows the origin for this minhag, it would be Shmuel.

So with some trepidation, the man approaches Shmuel and asks him the question. Shmuel thinks long and hard, searching the dim recesses of his memory for that long-lost moment when they started this bowing to the right. Finally, after a few minutes, he says he's got it. "Fifty years ago, before we remodeled," he said, "there was a steam pipe coming out of the wall there. If you didn't bow to the right when you approached the aron, you got conked on the head."

I often wonder how much of what we do today, as Orthodox Jews, falls into the category of "Steam Pipe Judaism." By this I mean practices that began for ahalachic external reasons that are no longer applicable, although the custom remains with us. I would not be surprised to find that a fair amount of what we do has no actual halachic basis if you search back far enough.

Now, I know that the first example many of you are going to bring is that of Yom Tov Sheini Shel Galus (the second day of the holidays observed in the Diaspora). However, that doesn't fit the bill... there was a legitimate halachic reason to institute that. True, the reason for it no longer applies, as we now have a set calendar, but nonetheless, we chose to continue to observe the extra days.

What I'm looking for are things that had no halachic basis when they started, such as the bowing to the right in the joke. I don't know of any off the top of my head, but, as I said above, I wouldn't be surprised at all to find out that at least some of our practices fit this category. Anyone have any ideas?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Frozen In Time

The world is a changing placing. The changes are happening very rapidly and will continue to increase at an ever-increasing rate. Let me give you an example:

If you took someone from 3000 years ago and suddenly dropped him in 1708 (300 years ago), he would find that the world has not changed all that much. Sure, there were some social changes and technological advances between the two time periods, but after an initial adjustment period, the person could easily fit in. If he was a farmer in his original time, he may have to learn to use some new tools and some new techniques, but he'd probably be able to catch on pretty quickly, resume his work and could probably (after an initial culture shock period) blend into society.

However, if you took someone from 300 years ago and placed him thirty years ago (1978), he'd find the world a vastly different place. Far more advances occurred in the 270 years he skipped than in the 2700 years the previous time traveler skipped. A person from 300 years ago would have been completely lost thirty years ago. Just about any marketable skill he would have had in 1708 would be obsolete. He would suffer from far more technological displacement than the person who jumped 2700 years. The period of culture shock would also be much longer... perhaps even lasting the rest of his life.

Now, take someone who died thirty years ago, grab him right before he dies and bring him to today. He's skipped thirty years. I don't think I can honestly say that the world has changed as much in the last thirty years as it has in the previous three hundred, but it has changed considerably. With few exceptions, any marketable skills that he had back in 1978 are obsolete. The culture of the world is so different that I think he might find it unrecognizable. Remember -- this person didn't live through the last thirty years, taking its changes in gradual steps like you and I did... he just "jumped" those years. Just about everything that we do, from the way we communicate, to the way we eat, the way we do our jobs, the way we travel, the way we're entertained... all of it has been completely revolutionized in the last thirty years. Our time traveler would also suffer from severe culture shock as well. Most of the ideas and notions that he had about society have radically changed over the last thirty years. For example, a race such as Hilary vs. Obama would have been unheard of in his time.

So, society is changing... at an ever-increasing pace - and to compete in today's society, you have to keep up. Back in the "old days," you could train to become an accountant, work as an accountant for thirty years, and find that the job hadn't essentially changed. Yeah, you may have swapped your slide-rule for a calculator or an adding machine; but still, not much had changed. You could happily keep plugging away at your job for years on end without the need to increase your skill set. There are, no doubt, many other occupations that fit the same profile.

Today, however, you need to keep updating your skills to succeed in most occupations. As more jobs become technology-oriented, we need to stay "with the times" in terms of technology to keep up. I'm a database developer/administrator. I first learned the skills for this job about ten years ago. However, the software that I learned on (Microsoft SQL Server 6.5) is completely obsolete and outdated. If I had to go out and find a job today, I'd be hard pressed to do so if my skill set was limited to version 6.5 -- that was three versions ago (with a new due out later this year). Even non-technical jobs, such as a secretary, have to keep up with the times. Secretaries now have to be at least minimally familiar with email, word processing and spreadsheets. Perhaps ten years ago a secretary could get by without these skills, but today they'd be at a severe disadvantage in the workplace. Many professional occupations require some form of continuing education (formal or informal) after leaving school.

OK, now that I’ve bored you for almost 700 words on technology and the need for change, what does this have to do with Orthodox Judaism?

As you might all be aware, there was a decree last year in Israel severely curtailing post-high school educational opportunities for women. Women were essentially forbidden from continuing their teaching education beyond a certain point and those that had finished it found themselves discriminated against in the education marketplace.

In light of the fact that these women are the main breadwinners of the community (because their husbands spend all day learning), this decree came as a tremendous blow to the potential earnings and career opportunities of these women. By severely capping the education and training that women can receive, you are likewise capping the potential earnings that they can tap into. Because these women are the main wage-earners, this affects the entire community, often relegating major sections of it to low incomes for life.

This matter has now been brought to a head again with a new decree this week. As reported by Rafi, Rav Elyashiv (along with others) have decided that an Israeli girls school could not call itself a Bais Ya’akov if it offered training for the Bagrut exams. By exerting pressure on Bais Ya’akov schools to drop Bagrut training, they will once again be curtailing educational opportunities for women – the main earners in the community. In fact, as reported by Bluke, the very reason for the decree is specifically because if the girl completes her Bagrut exams, she may want to enroll in a university or get a job with a good salary in the secular world.

I understand (even if I don’t agree with) the reasoning behind the decree. The reason is to preserve insularity. Most Hareidim don’t want outside influences creeping into their communities and by preventing women from getting an education or advancing too far in their careers, they hope to preserve that insularity.

The problem is that such a strategy would certainly have worked 3000 years ago. It even worked pretty well three hundred years ago. It might have even had a chance thirty years ago. But not today.

Three hundred years ago, a girl could have become a baker without any need of formal education and would never have needed to see the outside world. Thirty years ago, she could become a secretary with no need to update her skills right out of high school and spent the next twenty years answering phones, taking dictation and typing in an office. But the world we live in today, for better or for worse, is not the same world as 3000, three hundred or thirty years ago. It’s a rapidly changing market place where you have to keep updating your skills or fall behind in the marketplace. In order to compete for employment opportunities, you have to be willing and able to adapt, to learn new skills and, most importantly, be willing to contact the world outside of your own daled amos. You can’t have policies that are frozen in time, because the world is not frozen in time. If you’re going to place the burden of earning a livelihood on someone, then you have to allow them to (within the limits of halacha, of course) be able to compete in the marketplace for jobs. If not, all you’re doing is setting up obstacles and dooming those earners to failure.

Instead of banning education for girls, what needs to be done is to set up education opportunities for them to pick up skills that will allow them to compete in the marketplace. And, of course, you have to *allow* them to compete in the first place. If you’re going to only allow people to compete for a small subset of jobs (teachers in Bais Ya’akovs, secretaries in women’s offices, etc.), then you are severely restricting their ability to earn a living for their families, forcing more families into poverty.

The policy of complete isolation may have been a wise one in the past, but it’s one whose day has come and gone. Such policies cannot be frozen in time, or else they (and possibly the communities that use them) run the risk of becoming obsolete.

The Wolf

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mazal Tov On Your Date

Cheryl Kupfer has a sad article in last week's Jewish Press regarding the sad state of dating in the frum community. She starts out the article with this powerful line:

I hate to say it, but I am coming to the conclusion that that if a bocher and a girl actually go on a date – a mazel tov to both sides is warranted. It means that each had successfully passed an intense, all encompassing inspection and scrutiny that would be the envy of any secret government agency. Getting “approved”, and considered worthy to go out with someone, is getting to be a cause for celebration!

We've all heard stories about the "checking out" that goes on in the shidduch scene. Both sides (it sounds so... adversarial when put that way) provide information to the other, along with references. Phone calls are made, dirt is dug up, private investigators are hired (lest you think I'm joking, read the article) and after a while (anywhere from a few days to a few weeks) both sides come back with a "yes" or "no." Saying "yes" to date has become a major commitment in and of itself.

Now, I'm not saying that there aren't valid reasons to say no to a first date. But there are plenty of silly reasons to do so. Ms. Kupfer brings the case of one boy who was turned down for a first date. He was a fine young man who came from a chashuv, comfortable family. So, why was he turned down sight unseen? Well, it turns out that the poor fellow had the disadvantage of having too many siblings. What's wrong with that, you ask? Well, when it comes time to collect the inheritance, it would be split too many ways. That's right -- the girl (or her family) turned down a shidduch because they were thinking about the in-laws' death and how much they could profit from it! (I think the guy dodged a bullet with that one. He should thank God every day that he missed *that* shidduch!)

And, of course, if having too many siblings is a problem, so is having too few. As Ms. Kupfer puts it:

...somewhere out there in the shidduch world, a wonderful bocher wasbeing turned down by a girl’s parents – because he has too few siblings. The other side would have doubts about the family’s “frumkeit” if they only had three or four kids – or wonder - if indeed it was an ehrlich family, if there was a hidden “fertility” problem.

Now, I am not in the parsha of shidduchim myself. My kids are too young and I am happily married for quite a few years. However, I recently tried setting up some older singles. Eeees and I tried to set up a girl with a single fellow from our shul. She was willing, but he turned her down without so much as speaking a single sentence with her by saying that he doesn't think they're "on the same page." On the flip side, we tried to set the girl up with another guy we knew, but she turned him sight unseen on the advice of a mentor. Now, we're not talking about young kids here... all the people mentioned here are at least thirty years old and you'd think that they'd at least make the attempt. But sadly, that's not the way of today's shidduch scene.

Of course, all this is on top of the fact that we've made it utterly impossible for couples to meet on their own. Heaven forbid older singles should have a social gathering where they could meet on their own. Heaven forbid if a guy actually sees a girl in shul and (horror of horrors) asks her out all by himself.

I've always wondered if there really was a demographic "shidduch crisis" or if it was a simply a media-hype. To tell the truth, I'm now convinced that there is a shidduch crisis... although I don't know if it's simply a matter of demographics. The real crisis, IMHO, is that we've made shidduchim so difficult for younger and older sibllings alike, that we've placed so many obstacles in the way of a first date, that it is truly a miracle that anyone gets together anymore. Everytime I hear these stories, I thank God with all my heart that I met Eeees on my own (He was our shadchan) and that I didn't have to go through all this nonsense. If I did, who knows, I might still be single today.

The Wolf

New York Kohanim, Do You Walk in Washington Square Park?

If so, you may want to avoid it in the future. It turns out that the park used to be used as a Potter's field in the early 19th century. Lest you think that the bones would all be gone by now, it appears that they recently found bones there and during a previous recent excavation as well.

Of course, the idea of long-forgotten cemeteries is not new. The African Burial Grounds in downtown Manhattan were only rediscovered in 1991 after having been lost for over a century. I recently saw a monument in a children's playground/park in Greenwich Village saying that two fallen fireman were buried there in the 1840s. As it turns out, the monument had been moved from the actual cemetery years ago.

Considering the city's diverse, long and sometimes obscure history, how do today's Kohanim keep track of where they can and cannot go? I assume it's probably OK to go somewhere until a cemetery is found, but once it's found, do they keep a list of such places?

The Wolf

Disclaimer: Of course, this is not a p'sak. I am not a posek. Make sure you discuss matters with a competent rav before following any course of action.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ramat Beit Shemesh: Please Help!

Over the past few days, violence has broken out in Ramat Beit Shemesh, as some thugs have apparently decided that they were empowered to act as judge, jury and possibly executioners.

As has been reported in many places, Chareidim in Ramat Beit Shemesh have been relying on ever-increasing violent tactics to enforce their version of Chareidi Judaism on the rest of the residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh. One Chareidi resident, Tuvia Stern, has stood up to the thugs in a non-violent manner. For his troubles, his car has been trashed and he has been beaten.

DovBear, Rabbi Maryles, Rafi and others have done a wonderful job of chronicling the situation. Please follow this link to DovBear's blog and see what you can do to help to try to restore normalcy to the people of Ramat Beit Shamash.

The Wolf

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Shidduch System: Introducing Aidel Knaidel

What do you do when your parents exert an undue influence on your shidduch life? What do you do when your father wants to have complete control over who you date and marry?

I don't know. Baruch HaShem, that's not my problem. However, it is Aidel Knaidel's problem.

Aidel is a nineteen year old Bais Ya'akov girl, newly-minted from seminary, shined and polished for the shidduch dating scene. However, it seems she has a problem. Her father refuses to let her date anyone she chooses and only approves of choices that he makes or that his friends suggest. Unfortunately, all of them either reject her out of hand or are completely unsuitable for her (by her own estimation).

As she writes:

He only says yes to the boys that he picks out, or that his friend's suggest. And those mostly say no to me, or are completely not shaiich.

I just have no idea what to do. My mother agrees with me on this issue, but we cannot change his mind. He is adamant. And I am at a loss. Of course I have not gone out yet. At this rate, I will not.

And there is another thing. There is one particular boy, who he really wants me to go out with. I probably will end up, for his sake. But I feel like I am being forced into an arranged marriage. Marry him, or do not marry anyone at all. Marry him, or be a disappointment for the rest of your life.

I never knew what it feels like to be a disappointment to one's parents. Now I think I do know. And it kills me.


I feel your pain, I really do. From your posts, you sound like an intelligent, thoughtful person (although the fact that you link to Frumteens scares me). However, IMHO, if you are in a situation where you your parents have a veto power over whom you date, then my guess would be that you are not yet ready for marriage. Remember, *you* are the one getting married, not your father. *You* are the one who has to spend the rest of your life with the man you go under the chuppah with, not your father. You have to recognize that fact. Of course, you can turn to your father for advice on dating and marriage, and you certainly should consider shidduchim proposed by your parents, but recognize the difference between asking for advice and counsel and ceding complete control. It's *your* life, not your father's.

And don't give in to the pressure to get married earlier. You have to get married when it's right for you... not when everyone else thinks it's right for you. For some girls, it can be when they are eighteen, for others, it may not be until later. You're not a nebach if you're still unmarried at 21; don't let anyone else tell you otherwise. Again, it's *your* life, not theirs. *You* have to live with the consequences of your actions, not them. You, yourself, state in the above-referenced post that you are not ready for marriage. You're "dying to get married" and you don't even know why! Don't give in just because your parents, friends or "society" puts pressure on you. You do it when it's right for you -- whether it's tomorrow, next year, five years from now or even later.

I wish you much hatzlacha in your dating career.

The Wolf

Thursday, January 17, 2008

What You Can Do To Help Against The Kano'im In Ramat Beit Shemesh

See this post of DovBear's.

As many of you know, there is a "culture war" going on in Ramat Beit Shemsh between some overactive kano'im (zealots) and the normal Jewish people who want to simply live their lives in accordance with halacha (Jewish law) without having every chumra (stringency), imagined and real, thrust upon them by a vocal and violent minority.

Please read DovBear's post and see what you can do to help. It won't cost you anything other than a few minutes of your time.

The Wolf

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On Segulos

No, I did not recite Parshas HaMan yesterday. Nor did I last year*, the year before that or before that.

Lawyer-Wearing-Yarmulka came up with an interesting term for the proliferation of segulahs that have cropped up - Vending Machine Judaism. He puts it as follows:

My main beef with the segulah explosion we're witnessing, is that it cheapens Judaism. I've used the term Vending Machine Judaism before, and I think it's the perfect description of the new religion we're creating. Basically, God is a giant vending machine. We stand in front of it, see what we want, press a button, and we expect to get it. Need a shidduch? Say Shir haShirm. Parnasah? Say Parshas Ha'mon. Can't find your keyes? Give money to R' Meir Baal Ha'Ness.

This is turning religion into nothing more than a means to an end. It's a selfish version of Judaism, as in "How can I use God to get exactly what I want"?

I agree with him that Judaism shouldn't be about "magic formulas" and superstition. Thinking that saying a parsha acts as a "good luck charm" toward some goal or end does cheapen Judaism. However, I have to disagree with him about the very premise of his argument, which he presents in his last statement -- that asking God to provide for your wants and/or needs is selfish. After all, the bulk of the Shmoneh Esrei tefillah is not made up of praise of God, it's made up of various bequests on personal and national levels. I don't think anyone can rationally state that praying for one's needs isn't an authentic and long-held Jewish tradition. Even the Patriarchs prayed to God for their needs and wants. So, that being the case, how does praying to God for parnassah really differ from reciting Parshas HaMan at the prescribed time? Aren't they both just different forms of "vending machine Judaism?" and ways of "manipulating" God to get what we want?

To me, I think there is a fundamental difference between prayer and the segulahs that LWY brings in his rant. When one prays, one (hopefully) takes the time to recognize to Whom he is praying and takes into account that He is the source of all our blessings. God expects us to pray to Him for our needs and wants. He *wants* us to turn to Him for help and to recognize Him. Prayer causes us to develop a relationship with our Creator and to become closer to Him.

A segulah, OTOH, does not do this**. A segulah says "here's a 'magic' formula. Do this and God will grant you X, Y and Z." It does not involve asking Him to provide for us or to help us in our time of need. A segulah doesn't bring you any closer to God. Saying Parshas HaMan doesn't ask for sustenance. It doesn't bring one closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu... it's just a recitation of a passage. (The same could be said for prayer without kavannah, but at least that's in the form of a bequest.) In the vast majority of cases, what's missing in a segulah is the emotional commitment that is such a necessary component of prayer. Dropping coins in a box for R Meir Ba'al Hanes is fine, but even if you recite the prayer that goes along with it, I highly doubt that any of us recite it with the emotion that the Roman guard did the night he was to be executed. It's the emotional component that's missing -- the emotion that brings us closer to HaShem. To me, drawing closer to God is what makes all the difference.

Another important distinction (to me, anyway) between praying for parnassah and the segulah of reciting Parshas HaMan is the timing element. Prayer can be recited whenever one wishes. Whenever one feels the pressure of earning a livelihood, one can always turn to the heavens and ask God for help. He always makes Himself available to anyone who prays. You can turn to Him at any time of the day or night. He won't turn you away because you chose to pray on Wednesday at 3:00 rather than on Tuesday at 7:00 or Monday at 10:23. The segulah of Parshas HaMan, however, runs counter to this -- it states that it's only effective on that one day. If I recite it today, it's not effective -- I have to wait for next year. Choosing one day of the year for the simple recitation of a passage to effect a change in our livelihood sounds so... arbitrary... that I find it hard to believe that it comes from a loving, caring God***.

The Wolf

* Actually, I recite it every year when multiple times when preparing the parsha for the Shabbos morning laining (and again when I lain it on Shabbos morning. But I don't do it specifically on Tuesday for the segulah).

** Yes, I recognize that there may be some segulahs that do bring one closer to HKBH. If they genuinely do so, then I probably would have no objections to it.

*** Yeah, I know that there are going to be those of you who point to Yom Kippur. But the fact remains that (1) Yom Kippur still involves a major emotional component of bringing yourself closer to God and (2) prayer for forgiveness from sin is effective year round too. If I miss Yom Kippur for whatever reason, God's not going to turn to me and say "sorry, you'll just have to live with your sins this year. Come back next September."

Monday, January 14, 2008

Lessons From A School Fundraiser

Eeees and I recently attended a fund-raising event thrown by a well-known school in Brooklyn. Here are some of the things I learned:

1. If you're holding an affair at night, start it on time. If not, you're going to run late and end up serving the main course and clearing it off five minutes later in an effort to get back on time. No one wants to have the main course served at 11:00 and taken away at 11:05.

2. If you're going to have a guest singer (even if it's a surprise) don't have him drowned out by the musicians. Let us hear his voice.

3. Make sure your speakers aren't going to sound stupid. There was actually a politician at the event who spoke and told us that we should spontaneously applaud. Someone needs to look up the word "spontaneous."

4. If you're going to have more than two speakers, serve a course (soup?) so that people can eat. If people have food to eat they won't talk through the speeches and I won't have to sit through the speeches looking at the same scary salad for half an hour.

5. Having an affair in a fancy hotel is fine, but make sure you have enough warm bodies to fill up the place. There were tables there that were over 75% empty.

6. Save some space in the journal. No one really believes that Senators Schumer and Clinton actually wrote a letter to your institution to praise you for the good work you do. It's a form letter and a transparent bid to gain an extra dozen votes. No one is fooling anyone.

7. It's nice to invite the graduating class to the affair, but at least make sure that they meet the dress code of the school. It's embarrassing to see a school that makes a big deal on a strict dress code and yet girls show up to the affair with skirts/dresses that are above the knee.

8. If you're going to give gifts to the attendees, give them the gifts on the way out. This way they don't have to hold them and clutter up the table throughout dinner.

9. Lastly, if you're trying to portray the event as a high-class affair, don't give out plastic cups as gifts. It looks cheap and tacky. Send them home with the kids instead.

The Wolf

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Sometimes You're Amazed By What You Don't Know: The Rambam and the Eighth Article of Faith

Sometimes I find the things I don't know to be far more amazing than the things I know.

A while back, I had a discussion with a fellow regarding the text of the Torah as we have it today. I maintained that the text that we have is not necessarily the exact same as the text that Moshe presented to us at the end of his life. There are far too much evidence (IMHO) that the
*possibility* of textual variance exists to assert with 100% certainty that the Torah we have today is the same letter-for-letter with the Torah that Moshe gave the Jews before they entered Israel. (Note: I'm not ruling out the possibility that the text is identical either.)

My disputant maintained that despite any evidence, one is *required* to believe that the Torah we have today is identical to the one that Moshe gave us. As proof, he pointed me to a source that I had known about for years -- the eighth Ani Ma'amin. An English translation of this
reads as follows:

I believe with complete faith that the whole Torah which we now possess was given to Moses, our teacher, peace unto him

It seems pretty open and shut -- the Torah we have now is the same as the Torah that was given to the Jews by Moshe about 3300 years ago. So, despite whatever evidence you may find, you have to believe that our Torah and Moshe's are letter-for-letter the same. It seemed that I was defeated... I could bring up as much evidence as I could muster, but nothing trumps an Article of Faith.

Imagine my surprise, when I found out that the Ani Ma'amin was a particularly bad misstatement of what the Rambam said when he wrote about the Article of Faith. (To be honest, I wasn't even aware that the Ani Ma'amin wasn't written by the Rambam.) Here is what the Rambam actually states regarding the eighth Article of Faith (translation by Eliezer C. Abrahamson):

The Eighth Foundation is that the Torah is from Heaven. This means that we must believe that this entire Torah, which was given to us from Moshe Our Teacher, may he rest in peace, is entirely from the mouth of the Almighty. In other words, that it all was conveyed to him from God, blessed Be He, in the manner which is called, for lack of a better term, "dibur" - "speech". [Since God does not actually "speak" in a literal sense. - Lazer] It is not known how it was conveyed to him, except to Moshe, may he rest in peace, to whom it was given, and he was like a scribe writing from dictation, and he wrote all the incidents, the stories, and the commandments. Therefore [Moshe] is called "mechokek" - "scribe" (BaMidbar [Numbers] 21:18).

There is no difference between [verses such as] "And the children of Cham were Kush and Mitzrayim" (B'Reishis [Genesis] 10:6), "And the name of his wife was Meheitaveil" (ibid. 36:39), and "And Simnah was a concubine" (ibid. 36:12) and [verses such as] "I am HaShem your God" (Shemos [Exodus] 20:2) and "Hear O Israel" (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 6:4), for all of the Torah is from the mouth of the Almighty and it is all the Teaching of God (Toras HaShem), perfect, pure, holy, and true.

One who says that verses and stories like these [in the first group] were written by Moshe out of his own mind, behold! He is considered by our Sages and Prophets as a heretic and a perverter of the Torah more than all other heretics, for he believes that the Torah has a "heart" and a "shell" [i.e. an meaningful part and a meaningless part] and that these historical accounts and stories have no benefit and are from Moshe our Teacher, may he rest in peace. This is the meaning of [the category of heretic who believes that] "The Torah is not from Heaven" [which is listed in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) as one who has no share in the World to Come]. Our Sages, may their memory be a blessing, explain that this is [even] someone who says that the entire Torah is from the
Almighty except for a particular verse which was written by Moses alone. And on this [person, the Torah writes], "For he has scorned the word of God... [his soul shall be absolutely cut off, his sin is upon him]" (BaMidbar [Numbers] 15:31). May God, blessed be He, forgive the statements of the heretics.

In truth, however, every word of the Torah has within it wisdom and wonders for one who can understand them, and the full depth of their wisdom can never be attained. "Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea" (Iyov [Job] 11:9). A man has option but to follow in the footsteps of King David, the anointed of the god of Yakov (Jacob), who prayed, "Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things in your Torah" (Tehillim [Psalms] 119:18).

All this is also true for the explanation of the Torah, which was also received from the mouth of the Almighty [the Oral Torah]. The manner in which we today make the Sukkah, Lulav, Shofar, Tzitzis, Tefillin, and other items is precisely the manner that God, blessed be He, instructed Moshe, who then instructed us and Moshe was reliable in relating [God's word].

The verse which teaches this foundation is "And Moshe said, 'Through this you shall know that God has sent me to do all these things, for they are not from my heart." (BaMidbar [Numbers] 16:28)

You'll note that no where in this statement does it state that the Torah that the Rambam had was identical letter-for-letter with the Torah that Moshe left to the Jews. The Rambam seems to be making several points here:

  1. That the Torah that Moshe gave to the Jews came directly from God. Moshe did not create any portion of the Torah by himself.
  2. All parts of the Torah are holy, pure and originated from God -- whether those verses be the Sh'ma, the Ten Commandments or any of the various long and sometimes tedious "begat" portions.
  3. This principle also applies to the Torah SheB'Al Peh (Oral torah).

You'll note that no where in this statement does the Rambam assert that the Torah (written or oral) was transmitted perfectly from one generation to the next. Nowhere does he state that it is imperative to believe that the Torah that Moshe gave the Jews 3300 years ago is letter-for-letter the same as the one we have today. Yet, somehow, whoever composed the Ani Ma'amins felt the need to misstate what the Rambam said and add in the words "that we now possess." I don't know if my disputant was aware of this and was purposely deceiving me, or if he was as ignorant of the situation as I was.

To be honest, what shocked me most about this whole episode is not the fact that the Rambam's position on the Torah isn't what I thought it was -- rather it's the fact that I was *completely ignorant* of something as important as the fact that the Ani Ma'amins were not written by the Rambam and that this particular one (I haven't researched the others, but you'd better believe that I am going to do so now) is a very bad misstatement of what the ikkar emunah (article of faith) actually is. This is something that I never learned in Yeshiva -- whether at the elementary school, high school or beis midrash level. I'm *very* curious if this is something that I just missed (i.e. "I was out that day") or if it is commonly believed that the Ani Ma'amins accurately represent what the Rambam actually stated.

The Wolf