Thursday, October 29, 2009

I Don't Know What's Sadder...

So, here's the scene...

-- A sizable portion of the male chareidi population in Israel learns all day and does not work.
-- Charieidi families, like all other families, need to purchase food, clothing, etc.
-- Due to various factors (education, the economy in general, etc.), it is difficult even for chareidi women to find employment.
-- Chareidim (like all other communities) want to boost employment in their community.

With me so far? Good, because here's where it starts to get tricky.

-- The chairman of the Shas party arranges for a government call center to open near where chareidim live and employ chariedi women in Northern Israel.
-- Said government call center handles various different services, including health care organizations and pharmacies.

So, the calls start coming in. The women answer them, direct them to where they are supposed to go, whatever. Services are being provided and the women bring home a check, and all is right with the world.

Of course, I wouldn't be bringing this up if the story ended there. As you might expect, there is a fly in the ointment. As it turns out, some of the women have been getting calls regarding "virility pills." Older men are calling in asking questions about Viagara, Cialis or some of the other erectile dysfunction medications that are available. This has caused some problems for the women who view the calls as indecent and obscene. While I suppose it is possible that some of the calls could be what you or I would truly call obscene, I'm willing to bet that the vast majority (if not all) of them were actual honest calls for information about treatment for a medical condition. Since the call center handles calls for medical organizations and pharmacies, such calls are probably to be expected. Rav Asher Idan describes just such a call:

“She answered a call that was supposed to go to a pharmacy,” recalls Rav Idan. “On the other end of the line was a man of about 60, who wanted advice on pills designed to increase virility. He asked her what it does. Because she was unfamiliar with the product he had to explain it to her and then proceeded to ask detailed questions. Only when she realized what he was referring to did she hang up on him.”

Rav Idan then proceeded to state that answering such calls when not in her husband's presence* is a violation of the prohibition of giluy arayos (sexual immorality).

I think it's quite sad that people who are calling a health center about a legitimate health concern are considered "obscene" and "indecent."

I think it's also quite sad that these women are so sheltered that they had no idea that erectile dysfunction exists.

I think it's also quite sad that discussing health matters in a professional setting is considered as violating the boundaries of sexual immorality.

The bottom line is that people should not work in fields where they are unsuited to work. For example, I know that despite the fact that I like to cook, I can never work as a chef in a fancy restaurant. Why? Because of the prohibition of cooking meat and milk together. It would be disingenous of me to look for employment in that field and then say "oh, I can't cook this dish" and "oh, I can't cook that dish." Employers should make reasonable accomodations for employees, but if a bona fide criterion for the job is going to interefere with your religion, then you simply cannot take the job. If these women feel that they cannot truly work in a health center because answering bona fide questions regarding male health issues is obscene/indecent, then they should not work there.

Or, perhaps better, they should learn that not everything relating to male sexuality is obscene -- and learn to handle such calls professionally.

That being said, I'd like to end the post on a lighter note. Here's what one "leading askan" said about the incident:

“Employing charedi women should not be taken for granted,” a leading askan in the North told Hebrew website NRG. “Because of modesty issues rabbonim do not recommend women work outside of the home – only in cases where the financial situation is pressing and the woman needs to go out and get a job. Such cases require halachic clarification and a she’elas rov.”

Isn't that priceless? They set up a system where men don't work, forcing the women to work. Now this guy wants to say that women should not work either -- unless they get a hetter (permission) from a rav. And all this in a call center that was set up specifically to emply chareidi women. Seriously, you can't make this stuff up.

The Wolf

* I'm not sure why it would be any better (or worse) if she answered such calls if her husband was there.

** Would they say it's obscene or indecent for one of them to call their male OB/GYNs with a gynecological question?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Do You Do When There Is An Incentive To Be Irresponsible?

I have a friend (I'll call him Steve) who manages an IT group at a Midtown company. I don't know Steve's salary, but I have to imagine that he makes a decent salary -- certainly above the median for New York.

Steve also has three kids, the oldest of which is three years old. The kids are, obviously, not yet enrolled in a yeshiva, but at some point in the not too distant future they will be. I don't know where Steve would want to send his kids, but from what I know of him hashkafically and the location of his house (not in Brooklyn), I'm fairly certain that he'll be facing steep annual tuition bills. Assuming he has to pay his mortgage and other bills, it may well be beyond his ability to pay despite his above average salary.

For the moment, however, Steve's kids aren't yet in school. Steve is a pretty astute guy when it comes to finances. He's not a CPA, a financial planner or anything like that, but he has enough common sense and brains to be able to analyze a situation and a see what lies ahead in the future.

Let's assume (since I don't know this for sure) that Steve has the ability to put away some money from his job each month for savings. Simple logic would tell you that a person facing a long road of expenses in the future but with a current surplus would be wise to start putting away some money for that future expense. That's the entire basis of some of the various savings plans (IRA, 401(k), 529, etc.) that are out there - you put away now when you have excess to pay for a later expense (be it retirement, college education, etc.). So, if Steve can sock away a few hundred each month now to pay for yeshiva education for his kids later, he should do it. That would be the responsible thing to do.

The problem is that unless Steve's salary is very, very high, he actually has a disincentive to save.

If Steve's salary is very, very high, and he's able to carry the three tuitions in full (plus the tuitions of any other kids he may have in the future) in addition to his other expenses then he might have an incentive to save. But, in all probability, Steve does not have a salary quite that high. Three tuitions can easily add up to $25,000 a year or more -- quite a big hole in just about anyone's budget. So, in all probability, Steve (along with lots of other people) will be asking the yeshiva for a discount.

When Steve sees the financial aid application, there will probably be a question on there about how much he has stocked away in a savings account. Assuming that Steve has been responsible, he'll probably have been saving up and have a few thousand stashed away by the time his oldest hits first grade. The administrators will probably take this into account when they evaluate Steve's application for a reduction in tutition.

Now, Steve is an honorable, stand-up kind of guy. He's the type of guy who, if he could pay full tuition, would. He's not out to deliberately "cheat" the schools out of money that they owe. He's also not going to use the money that he would have otherwise put into the savings account to go on an expensive vacation, buy a big screen television, or go on a gambling trip to Atlantic City. He would put the money to use in ways that most of us would consider responsible -- he might pay off a high-interest credit card, or make an extra payment on his mortgage. But he probably can't help but notice the difference between himself and his less responsible neighbor - let's call him Mike.

Steve and Mike earn the same amount. Their houses are roughly the same price and they pay similar amounts in mortgages, bills, etc. Both have young children coming into the yeshiva in the next few years. Steve, being responsible, knows that he should begin saving now for the big upcoming expense. Mike, however, doesn't have a long-range vision. He knows that he's going to have to start paying tuition in a few years, but for now, it's not "on the books yet." He can take his discretionary income and spend it on whatever he needs or wants. So, Mike's family goes on a vacation this year -- because he knows that in a few years he won't be able to. He may purchase large-ticket discretionary items now. Heck, he may even be responsible and take the money and pay off his credit card bills. But whatever he uses it for, it's not going to be there when he enrolls his oldest in the local yeshiva.

Steve looks at Mike and his purchases and wonders to himself how he can buy these things. Doesn't he know that his kids have to go to yeshiva in a few years? He's just about positive that Mike doesn't have some outside source of income. He figures (correctly) that Mike isn't saving any money to pay for yeshiva in a few years. A casual conversation with Mike about the subject a few days later confirms his suspicions -- unless Mike hits the lottery in the next few years, he's planning on asking the tuition committee for a break on his kids' tuition when it's time to enroll.

Steve has to wonder to himself. He has the ability to make sacrifices to his lifestyle and to scrimp and save perhaps $30,000 over the next three years to pay tuitions. Of course, as the younger ones start enrolling and the savings account begins to deplete, he'll eventually have to ask for a tuition break himself - but for the first few years, if he really watches the pennies, he can probably pay the full tuition for his oldest. And that would be the honorable thing to do. But then he looks at Mike and thinks to himself -- "why should I save all that money when Mike will probably get a discount because he has no money in the bank? Why should I be "punished" financially for being responsible and being a roeh as haNolad*?" And so, Steve not only has no incentive to save -- he actually has a disincentive to save -- because if he does save, he'll either have to pay the entire tuition out of pocket or else the administrators will see the savings account on Steve's financial aid application and reduce his tuition based on the fact that he can draw on those savings.

In short, we've created a system where people are often rewarded for not being responsible and people end up worse off, financially, for doing the honorable thing and being responsible. And, perhaps, that's part of the problem that we have with the "tuition crisis" today.

The Wolf

* Literally "one who sees that which will be born." Figuratively -- somone with a longer-range vision than next week.

Furthermore, if what Steve hears about tuition committes are true, then he might be in even bigger trouble once the savings account is depleted and he has to start asking for a discount. Most committees are loathe, from what he hears, to give up their "full payers."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Princess and the Prostitute

Eeees and I were walking back from shul one Yom Tov morning when we passed by another shul in the neighborhood which we do not attend. As we passed by, she told me that the rebbetzin of the shul gave a speech to the women in the shul about their manner of dress in shul. Apparently, the key note of the speech was this: do you want to look like a princess or a prostitute?

Now, I know that some people might have a problem with the way some of the women dress in my neighborhood. Some of them might wear clothing that some would consider too tight. And, as the rebbetzin in the shul, I suppose she sincerely thought that she had some say in the matter, especially when it came to how they came dressed to shul.

Let's even say, for the sake of argument, that she was right -- the women dress in clothing that is too tight, perhaps the skirt is slightly above the knee (which, knowing the shul, I doubt), or the sheitel is too attractive. Nonetheless, I'd be willing to bet dollars to donuts that the women in my neighborhood do not, in fact, dress like prostitutes. There are many degrees of dress between princess (which, from the context, I'm assuming is code for tznius*) and prostitute.

In fact, I think that by framing the question this way, the rebbetzin probably lost most of her audience. Had she framed it in terms of a laxity in the spirit of tznius, her audience might have been able to internalize the message, seen how it applied to them and made the adjustments the rebbetzin was aiming for. But by framing it as "dressing like a prostitute," she probably lost them completely. The ladies attending the speech probably said to themselves "Well, that doesn't apply to me. I don't dress like a hooker!" and then proceeded to dismiss the rest of what she said.

The Wolf

* Although most of the formal gowns worn by European princesses certainly wouldn't qualify as tznius...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Just Spreading The Word

According to YWN, the wedding of Chani Kops & Shmuli Tevovitz tonight has suddenly been moved from Ateres Shlomo Hall to Ateres Chaya Hall (located at 1415 54th St) in Boro Park.

Just posting on the one in a million chance that a wedding goer reads my blog.

In case you know anyone going to the wedding, please pass along the info.

The Wolf

Podcast: When Is Passover this Year

My friend Zach Kessin (together with Rabbi Hillel Maizels) put together a podcast for 365 Days of Astronomy about the Jewish calendar titled "When Is Passover this Year Anyway?."


The Wolf

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Do Risque Fashions Save Tznius?

The laws of tznius, as they are applied to clothing and commonly understood by many in the "frummer" parts of the community, seem to be composed of two related rules:

1. A strict definition on what parts of the female body have to be covered. Collarbones, knees, elbows, etc.
2. An ideal that a woman should not draw attention to herself. The skintight evening gown that may cover her collarbones, elbows, knees, et al, is still no good if it leaves little of her figure to the imagination. The garment may be "kosher" from a covering point of view, but it still attracts attention to the wearer and is therefore forbidden.

However, it should be noted that whether or not an outfit is risque (and attractive) often depends on the surrounding culture. What was considered scandalous a hundred years ago might not even be shocking by today's standards. I don't think you would have seen anyone in Victorian England wearing a bikini at the beach -- and yet, today, it's considered normal beach attire* and is not shocking at all to most people.

I think that if you took all the fashions in contemporary America and graded them in terms of how much they reveal and how likely they are to find acceptence as "normal" within society, you'd find that they probably fall into a bell curve. The most attractive (and/or revealing) outfits would be at the right end of the scale. You'd probably find burquas at the left end. The curve would be the percentage of the population who felt that the particular outfit was in good taste. As you got closer to the average, the percentage of approvers would continue to rise. As you went further out to the sides, the number of approvers would fall.

Tznius, would, in essence, say that only outfits that fall within a certain middle region of the curve would qualify as tznius. Too far to the left and you're attacting attention for being too dowdy (think about the comments that the Beit Shemesh burqua lady was getting -- even before the more serious allegations came to light) and too far to the right and, well... you're just not tznius anymore. In the middle of all this is the average -- the golden mean which would be the norm. So, if you took all clothing in a given society and rated them on a scale of 1 to 100 for attractiveness (with 50 as the average -- the height of the curve), you'd find some outfits (like a burqua) rated at 1 or 2 and some (like a very revealing bikini) to be a 95 or 100. A reasonable rule might be that in order for an outfit to be considered compliant with the rules of tznius, it must fall into a certain range -- say 30 to 70. Anything over 70 is too attractive while anything under 30 is just so ugly/unusual that it draws attention.

Now, let's pretend, for a moment, that Orthodox Jews are the only people who exist on the planet -- or, barring that, that Orthodox Jews live in completely enclosed environments where they will never see a non-Orthodox Jew.

Since Orthodox Jews are the only ones in this society, the (assuming that no one will willfully violate tznius standards) only clothing that will exist is that which falls within that portion of the curve which is acceptable. In theory, the average (the top of the bell curve) will remain the same -- the only thing that will change is that the extreme portions of the curve (to the left and right) will disappear -- as those fashions will be outlawed. So, in our Torah compliant society, only outfits rated 30 to 70 would exist.

The problem here, however, is that attractiveness (as opposed to objective rules about body parts that must be covered) is relative to the society. Therefore, in a society where only clothing 30 to 70 exists (and you'd better believe that the "70" outfits will be more popular than the "30" outfits), the outfit rated 70 now becomes too attractive. Men will start to stare at the outfits rated 60 to 70 (human nature being what it is) and soon those outfits will come under fire as well as being too attractive. Eventually, those outfits, too, are banned -- pushing more and more people to some center where everyone dresses virtually alike.

However, we don't live in such a world. We live in a world where there are people who are not commanded to keep the mitzvah of tznius. We live in a world where bikinis, strapless gowns, showing cleavage, etc. are not uncommon. In other words, having such fashions in our society prevents the mitzvah of tznius from regressing into some nightmare where everyone has to dress identically all the time -- a condition that is so restrictive that, in a free society such as ours, would probably lead to more women dropping out of observance of the mitzvah than keeping it.

In short, I think you can make the case and say that risque fashions save tznius from falling into obsolescence.

The Wolf

* And it works the other way too. In ancient Greece, athletes used to compete in the nude. I think most people, even today, woudl find that shocking.

Cantillational Drift

It's funny the things that you think of when you're laining.

On Simchas Torah, while reading the Torah, I began to wonder if the tune that I'm using is really the same tune that was used a thousand years ago (or longer). Or does the cantillation "drift" with time?

Language, as we all know, suffers from this drifting effect. No only do expressions, idioms and the meanings of words change, but also the pronounciation of those words change over time (and place). Words that are pronounced one way today were very often pronounced differently at other times. (For some excellent examples of this, read Bill Bryson's book "The Mother Tongue.")

That being said, I'm almost certain that the tune that is used for Krias haTorah has changed over the years (and miles) as well. I'm very curious as to how it must have sounded a thousand years ago.

Anyone have any ideas?

The Wolf

UPDATE: Mississippi Fred MacDowell provided some interesting info on this question here. Thanks MFM!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mister, You Couldn't Be More Wrong If You Tried

"A day like today must be torture for you," the man said to me between aliyos. "Reading the same thing over and over and over."

I was somewhere in the middle of my third or fourth cycle through V'zos HaB'racha. My throat was beginning to give out between the singing during hakafos and the leining. The soles of my feet were beginning to hurt from having been dancing and standing for the last two and a half hours. I hadn't yet made kiddush for myself, and I was hungry and thirsty. We were just beginning to finish giving aliyos to the young bochrim and were soon going to start with some of the older under-Bar Mitzvah boys.

"Nah," I told him. "I love Simchas Torah. The atmosphere is great. The kids are so excited about the whole day, and the fact that I'm there when some of them get their first aliyah is priceless to me."

And then there are the kids... the fresh-faced boys coming up for their first aliyos, some of them standing on chairs so as to be able to see the sefer torah on the bimah. There's the kid who needs his father's help to make the b'rachos. There's the kohen's son who brought a huge smile to my face when, during his aliyah, he pulled his father's tallis up over his head. And then there's Reuvain.

Reuvain is eleven years old, but if you looked at him and didn't know better, you'd swear he was six. He has Down's Syndrome. Some parents shamefully hide children with Down's for fear that their other children may not get shidduchim -- but Reuvain's parents bring him to shul whenever possible. He usually stands on a chair on the opposite end of the bimah from me while I'm leining. Often he's the one who will cover the sefer between aliyos. When he arrives at shul during leining, he always takes his position at the opposite end of the bimah, sticks out his hand and wishes me a "Good Shabbos." with a hearty smile. I've been watching him grow, in his own fashion, for the last five years.

Reuvain's bar mitzvah is coming up in about a year or so and his parents are a bit concerned over what he'll be able to do for it. He's been practicing singing Ein Keilokainu... and, apparently, he's been practicing the b'rachos one recites upon receiving an aliyah. Like many kids, however, Reuvein sometimes exhibits stage fright. Even though he knows Ein Keilokainu, he has yet to actually go up to the amud on Shabbos mornings to sing it. His parents, who know him better than anyone else, don't push him to perform... they know he'll do it when he's good and ready - they just hope he'll be good and ready in time for his Bar Mitzvah.

Reuvain's father wanted him to go up and receive an aliyah, but as we were coming to the end of the list of kids who were receiving aliyos, he was still unsure about going up. One kid and then another went up, and now it was his turn. Either he took an aliyah now or else we went straight to Kol HaN'arim. He decided to go up. With his father standing beside him and his mother watching all in smiles from the women's section, he went up, made the b'rachos and stood there for the aliyah and recited the b'rachos afterwards. Needless to say, everyone in the shul was so proud of Reuvain.

After shul, Eeees came over to me and told me the rest of the story. "Do you know why Reuvain went up today?" she asked me. "Because of you. When they asked him why he went up, he said 'Wolf*.'"

So yeah, the soles of my feet were aching from having been standing for the last three hours. My voice was beginning to give out. I was hungry, thirsty and tired. And I have the adoration of a young kid in my shul. Torture? All torture should be so sweet.

The Wolf

* He didn't say "Wolf," of course... he said my name. :)

Friday, October 02, 2009

Am I A Deviant? I Think That Some Jews Would Think I Am...

In the comments to this post, a topic sprung up about the propriety of common courtesy vis-a-vis tznius. In the post, I mentioned that I was fairly certain that Rabbi Falk (of the famed tznius sefer Oz V'Hadar Levushah) would allow someone to say "thank you" to a person of the opposite gender who held a door open. Two people (Joseph and Rabbi Waxman over at his blog) have rightfully pointed out that it's entirely possible that Rabbi Falk would not permit it.

Truth be told, I don't know what Rav Falk holds. If anyone knows him personally, I'd love to hear what he has to say. But that aside, it's not really about Rav Falk, because (as Joseph pointed out), even if Rav Falk does not hold that way, there almost certainly is someone who does.

Upon reflection, I realize that to whomever holds that position, I must be a really dangerous deviant. After all, I am routinely (multiple times daily) guilty of the following breaches of tznius according to that position:
  • If a woman holds a door open for me, I actually have the nerve to say "thank you" to her.
  • If I bump into a woman on the subway, or step on her toe, or hit her with my bag, I actually say "I'm sorry."
  • When I get on the bus in the morning and evening, I say "good morning" or "good evening" to the bus driver -- regardless of the gender of the driver.
  • When I pass people on Shabbos* I say "Good Shabbos" to them if they appear to be Jewish, or "good morning/afternoon/evening" to them if they don't appear to be Jewish.
  • When I walk into the local grocery, I say good morning, etc. to the person behind the counter, who just as often is a woman as is a man.
  • I say hello to the person at a checkout counter when I buy something -- and yes, often times that person is a woman.

I suppose that with these multiple lapses of tznius that I commit daily, there are those in some communities who would view me as downright lecherous.

In the comments to my previous post, Joseph expressed a concern that such common courtesy can lead to inapporopriate behavior. In his viewpoint (and others, I suppose) the fact that a torrid affair could arise from a "thank you" is enough grounds to prohibit it. But in truth, I think he vastly overstates the danger. The odds of a simple "thank you" leading to something inappropriate are so remote as to be negligble. Does it happen? I'm sure it does sometimes -- but not enough to make a general rule of rudeness about it. Making such a rule falls right into the "If Only One..." fallacy.

The Wolf

* I do so sometimes on weekdays too, but more often people are rushing on weekdays and don't want to be bothered.