Tuesday, December 27, 2011

People Behaving Badly, Leaders Behaving Badly, State Behaving Badly

The news coming out of Israel over the past few months has been downright depressing. It seems to be a place where the rule of law no longer applies. Instead, several extremist groups are trying to assert the principle of kol d'alim g'var (whoever is stronger prevails) with respect to public policy.

It seems that they've succeeded with regard to Ohr Chaim book store in Jerusalem, where, after months of intimidation, they finally wore the owner of the store down to the point where he agreed with most (all?) of their demands. Other vendors have also been harassed to the point of being forced to alter their store policies.

The fight is still being fought in other spheres -- including gender-segregation on buses and public streets. The latest flash point for this fight is in the city of Beit Shemesh, where goons and thugs have been verbally, emotionally and physically assaulting young girls as young as six.

I find it very interesting that the majority of these battles are over gender-related issues. While I do believe that there may be some interesting observations that can be gleaned from that little factoid, I don't think gender is the real issue here.

The issues at hand here are not gender, the dress of young schoolgirls, the selling of books that might or might not be heretical or different sections of buses. The real issues here are power. The power to force your way of life on others, the power to extort money from businesses, and the power to control people's actions in the public sphere.*

It's often been said that rape is not a crime about sex, but a crime about power. I believe the same principle applies here as well. Various groups of chareidi thugs are attempting to build a power base through intimidation and violence. Just as a rapist uses sex as the vehicle for exerting power over another human being, these thugs are using Torah and halacha (or, rather, their warped version of it) as the vehicle for exerting their power over other people. In their attempt to exert that power, they feel perfectly justified in engaging in mafia-like tactics, physical violence against women and shouting words such as prutza (slut) and zonah (whore) at little girls. While any rational person can see that such things are not normal behavior by any civilized person, their desire for power blinds them to this.

Fortunately, these attitudes and actions seem to be restricted to a small group of thugs. For example, I am told that in Beit Shemesh, "modern" Orthodox Jews and chareidim have lived together in peace for years before the troublemakers came to the area. It has been said that good portions (if not most?) of the chareidi population are embarrassed and sickened by the conduct of these thugs.

However, there seems to be a vast silence when it comes to the chareidi rabbinic leadership when it comes to this conduct. The news reported today that the Belzer Rebbe has condemned the violent behavior of the thugs. However, this is the first such condemnation that I am aware of. The chareidi leadership on the whole, however, has been silent.

The argument has been put forth that the thugs won't listen to the rabbinic leadership. There may be some truth to that argument -- if the root of the problem is based on power and turf-wars, then perhaps they won't listen to the rabbis. But that does not absolve the rabbis of the responsibility to speak out. By failing to speak out, they give the impression that they endorse the violence -- either tacitly or expressly. If they are truly believe that the violent actions of the thugs are wrong, they should speak out against them publicly. If the thugs refuse to listen to their gedolim after that, then they will have been exposed as simple, plain thugs who are interested in power and terror rather than the Torah.

It should be pointed out that there is plenty of blame to be laid at the State here as well. The State, in allowing this to happen, is being neglectful of their responsibility to protect the property and well-being of it's citizens. The fact that the thugs were able to force the owner of the Ohr Chaim bookstore to accede to their demands and that the police could or would not protect the store owner from these mafia-type thugs is simply disgraceful. The fact that the police cannot or will not protect little girls from being pelted with produce and verbal assault is likewise disgraceful and embarrassing.

The first and foremost responsibility of any decent state is to protect it's citizens. The State needs to take that responsibility and take the actions necessary to protect it's citizens from thugs and extortionists.

The first and foremost responsibility of rabbinic leaders is to stand up and proclaim right from wrong. The rabbinic leaders of the communities from which these thugs emerge need to stand up and state unequivocally that certain behaviors and actions are unacceptable and against the Torah and halacha.

The first responsibility an individual is to do right and not do wrong -- and if he or she is not certain what is right or wrong, then s/he must do everything they can to find out.

All three groups have failed in their responsibilities. All three groups need to own up to their responsibilities. The consequences for not doing so are just too great to contemplate.

The Wolf

* And in the private sphere too. It's just that the thugs haven't figured out a way to invade the privacy of people's homes yet. But I have absolutely no doubt that if they could, they would.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

How Can They Say Science Is Wrong?

As many of you are aware, there are various statements made by Chazal that are at odds with current scientific understanding.  These include statements regarding the physiology of some extant animals, the existence of animals that are now considered to be fanciful, the age and nature of the universe, the movements of the heavenly bodies and other subjects.  Natan Slifkin, in a recent post, described the approach that various critics of his take towards reconciling these differences.  One such approach, taken by Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, is characterized by Rabbi Slifkin as follows:

Anyone with the slightest grasp of Chazal will realize that they were not speaking about the physical biology of bats. In the world of pnimiyus, the bat actually does lay eggs.

Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, of Far Rockaway (is he related to R. Moshe Shapiro?) takes a similar approach.  He writes:

In general, whenever Chazal make a scientific statement, they are not talking about the observable universe but rather the "real" universe. What we - and the scientists - see is only a graphic user interface, so to speak. The real world - the real sun, real moon, real earth - is not observable by current scientific means. Chazal were talking about the real world when they spoke. I'd recommend this Shiur for a full treatment.

Therefore, the Jewish sages were talking about the "real" universe, which indeed behaves exactly as the Chachmei Yisroel described. The non-Jewish scholars were arguing with limited information, i.e. with what their scientists could see on the "outside," GUI world. We agree that on the outside, it would appear the way they say. But the Chachmei Yisroel saw deeper, they saw into the real world and there, their description is correct.

Of course, they'd never believe the source of our information, which was the Torah's insight into the world, and it is likely assur to explain it to them anyway. So we couldn't really win this argument. But we were right. 

I find this particular approach to be totally incomprehensible.  Set aside, for the moment, that there is little, if any, indication that Chazal were not talking about the actual physical universe.  The real difficulty with adopting this approach is the fact that you cannot then use any of Chazal's statements as a basis for arguing with modern science.  You cannot say that science is wrong regarding bats laying eggs and, at the same time, use Chazal's statements regarding bats and eggs as proof that science is wrong.

Rabbi Yaakov's argument ends with the statement that we're right and the scientists are wrong.  But he's really fighting a phantom.  He says that when Chazal make statements about our world, they are talking about some "reality" that is not observable through our senses or experimentation.  The scientific community, on the other hand, makes no such claim.  They deal in the observable universe.  They make no such claim regarding any behind-the-scenes metaphysical universe that the Rabbis Shapiro claim that Chazal speak of.

In short, by adopting this approach, the Rabbis Shapiro have ceded the argument to the scientists vis-a-vis the  observable universe.  Science says bats don't lay eggs?  Not a problem -- since Chazal weren't talking about physical bats, we can say that science (which concerns itself with physical, observable bats) is correct (regardless of whether Chazal are right or wrong about metaphysical bats) in it's statement that bats do not lay eggs.  Spontaneous generation (such as with mud-mice or lice)?  Also not a problem -- science is right because it deals with physical, observable animals, not metaphysical ones.  The same can be applied to the age of the universe, and just about any other area of argument regarding science and Torah.  In short, by making the claim that Chazal were talking about some unobservable meta-physical reality, they have lost the ability to use Chazal's statements as a basis for saying that science is wrong about anything.

The Wolf

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Photos: Colorful Water Drops

Canon XSi, 100mm macro lens, f/2.8, 1/320 second, ISO 200

Lately, I've been experimenting with various water drop pictures.  Here's one that I did that involved using some color.

Comments, criticisms and critiques are welcomed, appreciated and encouraged.

The Wolf

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

"Even An Eight Year Old Draws My Eyes..."

As many of you are probably aware, there has been a battle going on surrounding the Orot school for girls in Beit Shemesh.  The short version of the story is as follows:

The town of Beit Shemesh had been planning a new girls' religious-Zionist school for several years.  Eventually, they were given a parcel of land and began building.  Before the building could be completed, a new chareidi neighborhood opened up in Beit Shemesh adjacent to the parcel of land where the school was being built.  By the time the school was ready to open this past September, the chareidi neighborhood was flourishing.

Various elements within the chareidi community did not want the school located adjacent to their community.  They decided that the girls' manner of dress, while in strict accordance with halacha, did not meet their standards.  After trying to bring political pressure to bear, they attempted to occupy the building before the school year started.  When that failed, they began daily protests outside the school, shouting insults such as "whore" at the girls, who are aged 6-12.

I hadn't heard anything about this after the Yomim Tovim and (perhaps naively) assumed that the battle had ended.  Apparently, I was wrong.  An article appeared yesterday in The Guardian, indicating that this is still going on.  The extreme elements within the chareidi community are still protesting and yelling at the girls, as well as otherwise making trouble in Beit Shemesh.

I detect a certain amount of hypocrisy in the position of the extremist chareidi mindset.  They demand that others be sensitive to their customs and mores.  For example, they ask that if women come through their neighborhoods, they do so dressed modestly.  Personally, I don't have too much of  a problem with such a request.  "When in Rome..." the saying goes, "... do as the Romans do."  A visitor should be sensitive to the cultural norms of the places where s/he visits.

But yet, the chareidim can't or won't respect the cultural norms of others.  They move into an established community and then begin protesting if the established residents don't meet their standards of behavior.  It doesn't matter to them that the school was planned for that spot long before they arrived.... they're there now and that's all that matters to them.  In short, their attitude it "when we're here first, live by our rules.  When you're here first, live by our rules."   Interestingly enough, in Judaism, we have a name for that sort of attitude.  The Mishna in Avos puts it very succinctly:  [One who says] what's yours is mine and what's mine is mine [indicates the] type of behavior of S'dom.

Interestingly enough, there may well be another S'dom connection here.  One of the reasons brought down for the punishment of S'dom was sexual abnormality.  It seems we have that here too.  When Rabbi Dov Lipman, a community activist, asked one of the protesters why he was protesting the manner in which a little girl dresses, he responded that "even an eight-year old draws my eyes."

There is a word for people who think about eight year-olds in a sexual manner.  Deviant and pervert are two of the milder ones that come to mind.  I think that it is obvious that there are deviant and perverted people among the protesters, and that perhaps the chareidi community should look within itself to weed these people out.

The Wolf

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Is There Even A Point To This?

A friend of mine spotted the following flier hanging in Brooklyn.  In short, it states that there are a limited number of openings for the opportunity to do the mitzvah of shiluach hakein -- the sending away of the mother bird.  For a "nominal fee*" the person behind the flier will presumably take you to the bird and nest and allow you to perform the mitzvah. 

Furthermore, the flier continues, you should not miss out on this opportunity since aside from Torah's promise of "Prosperous Days and Longevity," you are also guaranteed (emphasis mine) a slew of other benefits, including the conceiving of children, finding a spouse, purchasing a house, etc.

Personally, I have several problems with this particular flier and with others like it.  The first issue I have (with this flier in particular) is the use of the word "guaranteed."  How can the rabbi behind this offer (whoever he is) possibly make such a guarantee?  Even the promises made by Hashem Himself in the Torah aren't absolute promises -- consider the story that is told about Elisha ben Avuyah (a.k.a. Acher) who saw a young boy die while trying to fulfill this mitzvah and the mitzvah of honoring one's father.  That being the case, how can this rabbi make such a guarantee?  Will he personally grant a child to a childless couple if they fail to conceive despite his promise?  Will he pay the medical bills of someone who *is* hurt while traveling?

This is, of course, a part of the general trend nowadays of selling yeshuous (salivations) and promises of miracles.  The only difference here is that instead of the money going to a yeshiva, charity or some other organization, this rabbi is using it as a part-time business opportunity.  I don't begrudge him the opportunity, but I must say that if I find the selling of Divine promises of salvation distasteful in charitable endeavors, I find it all the more so in a private enterprise.

But there's also a deeper, more troubling problem with this offer.  Shiluach hakein strikes me as an "opportunity" mitzvah.  If you find yourself in a position of wanting eggs, and you find that the eggs you want are in a nest being protected by a mother bird, then have to send the mother away.  But what if you don't really want the eggs?  Suppose you're traveling on the road (as the case is described in the Torah) and you spot a tree with a bird, nest and eggs, but you have no desire for the eggs.  Is there any mitzvah to climb the tree and shoo away the mother bird?  Clearly the answer is no -- you don't have to do so and (to my understanding) doing so for no reason may even amount to a measure of tza'ar ba'alei chaim (causing pain/distress to animals).

That being said, what is the purpose of this whole exercise?  I doubt that anyone who responds to this rabbi's offer has any real desire for pigeon eggs (or whatever other bird it is that he's using)**. Even if he's using chicken eggs, why would anyone go all the way to him when eggs can be had in the local grocery much more easily?  So, the whole thing is just an artificial and contrived set up to perform a mitzvah that is just not required.  What next?  Should I charge people $5 for the opportunity to find my wallet in a side room after I leave it there so that they can perform the mitzvah of returning a lost object?  Is that really fulfilling the mitzvah?  The entire exercise sounds (to me) so contrived and artificial and completely out of sync with how the mitzvah should actually be performed.

The Wolf

* I don't begrudge the rabbi the "nominal fee" (assuming, of course, that it is, indeed, nominal).  He certainly spends his time (and possibly money) to arrange this and deserves to be compensated.

** This is leaving aside the question of whether or not the rabbi would even let the person take the eggs away, as this would either prevent him from giving the opportunity to the next person or require him to find a new nest with eggs for each opportunity.

(h/t for the photo on request)

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Photos: Tiger

I recently took a trip to the Bronx Zoo and, of course, I took my trusty camera along.  I managed to get a number of good tiger shots.  Here's one:

Canon XSi, 75-300mm lens at 300mm, f/5.6, 1/400 second, ISO 400.

Comments, critiques and criticisms are welcome, encouraged and appreciated.

The Wolf

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Photos: Fly

As long-time readers of this blog know, I happen to enjoy photography.  One particular type of photography that I enjoy is macro photography, otherwise known as "close up" photography. 

I own two macro lenses which I use for my macro photography.  One is a Canon 100mm macro lens (the older, non-L lens, for you photo geeks).  This is a great lens which provides up to life size (1:1 magnification) pictures.  This is also a nice portrait lens.  Despite the name, it can be used for non-macro work as well and is my favorite lens among the ones that I own.

Canon, however, also makes a specialty macro lens, called the MP-E 65.  It's a 65mm lens that is exclusively a macro lens.  It cannot focus on anything more than a few centimeters away.  This lens, however, is capable of providing up to 5x magnification.   This lens, however, has some unique challenges, such as the lack of an auto-focus feature.  It's all manual focus and the only way to get your subject in focus is to manually move the camera (or your subject) back or forth until the focus is right.  In addition, the higher the magnification you chose, the more challenging the shots become.  As a result, I find myself most often using it at 2-3x. 

I like to shoot insects with my macro lens.  Or, rather, I should say, I like to *try* to shoot insects.  The little buggies, however, rarely stand still long enough for me to set up with my manual-focus macro lens.  Needless to say, taking such pictures, while fun, is sometimes quite challenging and when I do end up with a nice, clear image, I like to consider it a victory.

Which brings us to this picture.  I set up a plate on my back porch with a piece of apple and some honey, hoping to attract some bees or wasps.  All I got was a very young fly.  As it turns out, that was a blessing for me.  Since the fly was young, he(?) hadn't yet learned to be overly fearful.  As a result, he was willing to sit on the apple and pose while my camera lens got thisclose to him.  The result:

Canon XSi, MP-E 65mm lens at 3x, f/8, 1/20 second, ISO 800

As always, comments, critiques and criticisms are welcome, encouraged and appreciated.

The Wolf

Monday, August 29, 2011

Whatever Happened to Civility and Basic Respect?

This past Tisha B'Av, a group of Chassidim (I believe they were Neturai Karta, but I could be wrong about that) protested in New York against Rav Shteinman and his support of the Tal Law in Israel which allows for a chareidi army unit.  In the course of the protest, at least one of them loudly proclaims that Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman is a "Rusha M'Rusha" (extremely wicked person) and says "Y'mach Sh'mo" (may his name be erased) after his name. 

Long time readers of my blog know that I do not ascribe to the doctrine of rabbinic infallibility.  I believe that it is possible for gedolim, including Rav Shteinman to be in error*.  So, if you believe that Rav Shteinman is wrong,  I have no problem with someone marshaling forth their arguments and making their case, even forcefully.

But there's a very clear and distinct line between forceful, civil disagreement and outright disrespect and outright demonization --- and the people in this video completely blew past that line.  To call someone who is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest living sages extremely wicked and to use the epithet "y'mach sh'mo" -- an epithet reserved for only the most reviled people in history is, in my humble opinion, completely and utterly beyond the pale. 

I can't help but think that their version of "shivim panim laTorah" (that there are seventy facets to the Torah) is similar to Henry Ford's idea of choice of color for the Model-T -- the customer can "have any color so long as it's black."  It's one thing to believe that your path is legitimate.  It's quite something else to believe that only your own narrow ideology is correct and that anyone even slightly outside it is not just wrong, but a wicked person whose name deserved to be wiped out. 

Interestingly enough, I see the same thing happening in other places as well.  For example, in a recent thread on the YWN Coffeeroom, a discussion cropped up about the recent earthquake and Hurricane Irene both hitting the northeastern United States in such close proximity.  Some posters felt that there was a Divine message there.  One poster (ronrsr) stated that it was mere coincidence.  Another poster decided to attack that position by saying:

sorry, ronrsr, to call this a coincidence is pure apikorsus

Let's leave aside the fact that that ronrsr's respondent clearly doesn't know what constitutes apikorsus.  What disturbs me far more than his ignorance is the fact that the respondent sees no possible middle ground between his own opinion and heresy.  In his eyes, it seems, it's not possible to simply be wrong (let alone have an alternate, legitimate opinion).   Instead of being incorrect, his disputant has to be labelled as an apikorus -- possibly the worst designation you can give to a Jew. 

Whatever happened to the idea of respectful disagreement?  Whatever happened to the idea that someone could be wrong but they don't have to be demonized?  In short, what ever happened to common civility? 

The Wolf

*  I personally don't know enough about the issue to say whether Rav Shteinman is right or wrong on the issue.  The issue here is not whether Rav Shteinman is right or wrong, just that it is within the realm of possibility that he is wrong.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Emotionally Manipulative Fraudulent Tripe

A new letter is beginning to make the rounds on the internet and, possibly, other media.   The letter is about the recent murder of Leiby Kletzky, purported to be from "Moshela," a handicapped child.  I'm not going to post the entire letter -- it can be read online here or here.

Before we comment on the content of the letter itself, I will start out by saying that I am certain that the letter is a fraud.  There is no way that a child, handicapped or not, wrote this letter.  It's just not the way that a child writes or speaks.  In that respect, it reminds me somewhat of the famous letter of Revital Avraham, which, like this letter, tries to emotionally use a person's death (although, in that case, it was a fictional person's death) to manipulate people emotionally.

The letter basically tries to make the case that Orthodox American Jews are bad Jews.  An entire litany of sins (real and imagined) are laid out for us -- everything from talking during davening to eating sushi and pizza.  Yes, of course, tznius is mentioned as well (has there ever been a tragedy in the past twenty years that wasn't chalked up to a supposed lack of tznius standards?), as well as laxity in kashrus, too much gashmius (materialism) and other items.  He concludes by prophesying about terrible things coming in the next few months and that we must all repent our sins.

The kicker, of course, is that it isn't the killer who is responsible for Leiby Kletzky's death, but us.  As "Moishela" puts it:

Q: Why is it a Kiddush Hashem if he was killed by a Yid?
A: Because it does not matter who killed him. It was the Goyishkeit in ourselves that killed him so that makes it a Kiddush Hashem. A true Yid would never kill a child as this man did, only if he is totally deranged. And even so, a real Yiddishah Neshomah could never be guilty of such cruelty; therefore he died Al Kiddush Hashem. The Goyishkeit in us is what killed him.

Personally, reading letters like this make me sick.   It's one thing to try to advance your own agenda, but it's another thing to use a child's death to do so.  If you want to make the case that Jews need to change their conduct in certain areas, then by all means, make the case for it.  But don't tell me that Lieby Kletzky died because I ate a slice of pizza. There's only so much manipulative tripe I can take, and this letter went well beyond that.  That's not to say that "Moishela" doesn't have some valid points.  I think most of us can agree, for example, that talking and texting during davening is wrong and disrespectful.  He may have some valid point in other parts of his letter as well.  But when he wraps the whole thing up in an emotionally manipulative letter that blames everyone and everything except the actual killer (and lies about the authorship of the letter to boot), then I lose interest in the entire message he's trying to convey.

The Wolf

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

My Good Old Siddur

There is a small maroon softcover siddur that I keep in my tallis bag and which I use every day.  I bought the siddur from a seforim store back in 1984 or 1985.   The design on the cover and the lettering on the spine have long since faded away.  Some of the pages are a bit faded and a number of the page corners are dog-eared or missing entirely.  The edges of the pages have long since lost their bright white glow and turned a dingy, dull gray.

I have sometimes been asked why I use such an old siddur.  Most people would retire a run-down, well-worn siddur after twenty-five years, especially when the siddur wasn't an inheritance or gift from a special relative, rebbe, friend, etc.  After all, siddurim are not particularly expensive.

As it turns out, there is a reason why I keep this particular siddur and use it daily.  The reason for it can be best explained after you've seen a scan of two pages.

There are eleven pages in the siddur that have scribbles on them in the same red ink.  These scribbles were made by Walter about sixteen years ago when he got a hold of my siddur and a red pen one day when I wasn't looking.  I remember, at the time, being somewhat upset about it, since I had already been using the siddur for a number of years and I happened to like it.

But in the years that have followed, the siddur has grown on me, precisely because my young son scribbled on eleven of the pages.  Those pages have come to have special meaning and significance for me over the years.  I've learned to understand that when I see those pages, I now have something to pray for -- my children.  I see the pages and I'm reminded that I have to pray for their welfare -- their physical welfare, their emotional and spiritual welfare, their social welfare and probably a dozen other welfares as well.  You'd think that a person shouldn't need a reminder to pray for something, but sometimes we show up for davening in the morning bleary-eyed and half-asleep and just "go through the motions" without taking the time to reflect upon what it is that we are asking our Creator for and why we are asking it of Him.  But I have something to help me focus on what's important.  I have some red scribbles on the opening pages of my siddur that has, for the past sixteen years, reminded me of why I need to entreat my Creator.

I may have been upset at the time, but, in retrospect, I realize that I owe a great deal of gratitude to my then-toddler son.  By taking a red pen to my siddur, he has given me a reminder everyday to focus my prayers on the important things in life.

The Wolf

Monday, June 27, 2011


The cover is blown... sort of.

Over Shabbos, I found out that I am not nearly as anonymous as I was a few weeks ago.  A recent post of mine was read by someone who knows the subject of the post, who then spread the word (not out of malice, but because they liked what I said in the post).

Truth to tell, I'm actually okay with it.  When I wrote the post I was well aware that there was a possibility that someone could identify me from the post.  If I were truly paranoid about my "secret identity" I probably would not have posted it to begin with (or at least altered it significantly more than I did).  So, I can't say that I'm totally shocked by this. 

In addition, I have no regrets about writing the post.  I was touched and moved by the events of the day...and I still am.  I thought that they deserved to be written about and shared... and I still do.  So I don't regret writing the post, even if it means that many more people know who I am.

In reality, I've been going back and forth on the whole "anonymous blogger" bit for a few years already.  Back in 2009, I was considering just coming out and revealing who I am*.  At the time, I simply chose to remain anonymous. Nonetheless, despite that decision, I did begin the "coming out" process.  I informed some close friends** and family members about my blog.  I posted about real-life people that I knew (even if it meant that their families would be able to identify me).  I even went to a blogger's meet-up without a mask and allowed myself to be photographed.  :)  In addition, many of the photographs that I post on this blog are posted elsewhere on the 'net under my real name.  It was probably only a matter of time before someone saw one of my pictures and said to him/herself, "Hey, didn't I see that picture somewhere else..."

With all that being said, however, I'm not going to be revealing my name here.  I expect that if you really wanted to find out who I am, you could probably do it without too much difficulty.  If you know me in real life and want to ask me about my blog, by all means, feel free to ask.  If you don't know me in real life... well, my name probably wouldn't mean anything to you anyway.  I'm not a famous (or infamous) person... just a regular frum guy in Brooklyn posting on a blog.  So, there's not going to be any "grand announcement" of my identity... but I'm not going to be paranoid about it either.  I guess you can call it "pseudo-anonymous."

For those of you who do know me in real life and are aware of this blog, I ask you to please not make any public announcements.  If someone asks you directly if the Wolf is so-and-so, by all means, don't lie.  But please don't just give it out to every Tom, Dick or Harry who asks without reason (and I leave it up to your discretion as to whether it's a good reason or not).


The Wolf

* Not that my real name would probably mean anything to you.  I'm not a famous person.
** If you're reading this and you're thinking "we must not be close because he never told me..." please don't think that way.  If you never expressed an interest in blogs one way or the other, then there would have been no reason for me to mention it.   

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Misaligned Moral Compass in New Square

It is being reported that Shaul Spitzer, the person accused in the attempted murder of Aron Rottenberg and his family, has been released from the hospital and is back in the yeshiva in New Square.

The fact that Spitzer has been welcomed back to the yeshiva shows that moral compass of the leaders of the community is severely misaligned.

In New Square, you can be thrown out of school for the crime of having a parent who davens in the wrong shul, as happened to Rottenberg's daughter.  You would, presumably, face expulsion if you had a television in your home, had unfiltered internet access, had the wrong books, etc.  But attempt to murder a family in their sleep by fire?  For that, you get to come back to the yeshiva.

Assuming the yeshiva is under the control of the Skvere Rebbe, I have to admit that the fact that Spitzer is allowed back into the yeshiva really makes the condemnation of the attack very suspect.  How can he condemn the attack in public and yet allow Spitzer back into the school when he expels other people from educational institutions for far, far less?  I'm also left to wonder if the leaders of the New Square community haven't completely lost their sense of morality.

The Wolf

Monday, June 20, 2011

Photos: What Is It?

I haven't posted a photo challenge in a while, so perhaps it's time for a new one.  Here's the pic:

Canon XSi, MP-E 65mm lens at 5x, f/16, 15 seconds

The only clues I will give you is that the image you are seeing is magnified 5x its normal size and the subject(s) was (were) found in my home. 

The first one who guesses correctly the subject of the picture receives twenty Wolf points.

The Wolf

Friday, May 27, 2011

... And I Sat Down And Cried.

The Bar Mitzvah in our shul this past Shabbos was unlike any other Bar Mitzvah I ever attended; but that's simply because the young man is unlike any other Bar Mitzvah I ever met before.

Reuvain is a child with Down's Syndrome. It only takes a single glance at Reuvain to know that he's not quite like you and I. Despite the fact that he's been around for thirteen years, his height and face are more reminiscent of that of a seven year old. His speech can sometimes be unclear and he occasionally has issues dealing with certain social situations, including large and noisy crowds.

In the six years that I've been davening in my present shul, I've come to feel that I know Reuvain to some extent. His is the face that I see when I lain. I say that because whenever he is present in shul during laining, he takes a chair and stands on the opposite side of the bimah from me. From there he will watch and listen attentively as I lain. He’s also often the one “in charge” of placing and removing the cover of the Torah in between aliyos. Usually, at some point toward the end of the laining, he will ask me for the yad, as he likes to hold on to it. My usual response to him is that I still have two or three or four (or however many) aliyos still to lain before I can give it to him. He'll look at me and smile and wait patiently until the end of laining so that I can give him the yad. In some ways, it's become a bit of a game between us. In the past, I've told him that he can have the yad after I finish the aliya after kaddish, but he still asks, and so I'll still him "three more aliyos" or "two more aliyos."

In truth Reuvain is a very special person in our shul -- and that is a testament to both his parents and the people in our shul. It is unfortunate that in the past, children such as Reuvain were hidden away, lest their very existence bring shame the family and ruin chances for shidduchim for the other members. It's even more unfortunate that this type of attitude actually still exists in some places. Reuvain's parents, on the other hand, never subscribed to this mode of thinking. They have done their best to integrate Reuvain into the shul to the best of his capabilities. He comes to shul nearly every week and davens and participates as best he can. As I mentioned earlier, he is always present and watching during laining. When the Sefer Torah is taken out of the aron, he is there to help, and when it's being put away, he's there waiting to kiss the Sefer and help put it away. Reuvain has never been hidden away by his parents -- he is one of their children and, to the best of his ability, they and their other children have tried to fit him in and mainstream him as much as possible.

The people (and especially the children) in the shul have embraced Reuvain as one of their own. It's all too easy and common for children to make fun of another child who is different -- and there is no denying that Reuvain is different in just that way that might cause other children to poke fun at him. But that's not what the children in our shul do. Instead, he's one of them. I have a very vivid memory of Simchas Torah a few years ago where Reuvain was dancing in the shul with his stuffed Torah and all the other children in the shul were dancing in a circle around him, celebrating with him, making him the focus of their celebration. The adults, too, welcome Reuvain with open arms. After davening he will often go around to wish "Good Shabbos" to all the men in shul, and they will all shake his hand and with him a "Good Shabbos" in return.

I have a slightly more personal connection with Reuvain than the average person in our shul. For some reason that I have yet to fathom, Reuvain has taken a liking to me personally. He has somehow locked on to me as a figure of admiration and friendship. Perhaps one short story will illustrate this and provide some background for what happened this past Shabbos.

In our shul, the custom is to give pre-Bar Mitzvah boys individual aliyos on Simchas Torah. Reuvain had been practicing the b'rachos for his Bar Mitzvah and knew what to say if he wanted to have an aliyah. Reuvain was given the opportunity to have an aliyah and was somewhat ready to go, but when his turn came, he got cold feet and didn't want to go. So, we called up some other boys instead and, after each one was finished, we gave Reuvain the opportunity to have the next aliyah. This continued until we got up to the very last aliyah before Kol HaN'arim. He was then told that if he wanted to have an aliyah, it would have to be then. In the end, with his father's help, he mustered up the courage and took his first aliyah. Amid tears of joy, his parents watched as he said the b’rachos on the Torah and stood there for his first aliyah. I was later informed by Eeees that Reuvain was asked what made him change his mind and agree to have an aliyah. He said that he did it for me.  Needless to say, I felt extremely honored and touched.

I knew in advance that, for his Bar Mitzvah, Reuvain was supposed to read the Maftir. His father had been telling me in the months leading up to the big day that he had been practicing with his teacher and that he had been making wonderful progress. I hadn't heard him practicing his laining, but I had heard him practicing Ain Kailokeinu and Aleinu and, over time, I could see his progress there. I figured that if he could lain the Maftir, it would be a wonderful thing. I certainly didn't expect anything more.

So there we were on the big day in shul. All manner of friend and family were gathered to watch this special boy become Bar Mitzvh. I finished laining the parsha and returned to my seat so that Reuvain could lain the Maftir. However, after the gabbai called Reuvain up to the Torah, we could hear him saying "Don't want" from his seat. The poor kid probably wasn't prepared for the large crowd of people and retreated into his shell. His father took him outside to try to calm him. In the meantime, the congregation waited.

After about ten minutes (and after consulting with the Rav), his parents decided to try slowly acclimatizing him to the crowd. They brought Reuvain into the shul and all the men except for his father and his Bar Mitzvah teacher left. While everyone was outside, Reuvain practiced the laining again. After he practiced it once, Reuvain's brothers and some other relatives were brought back in, and he practiced the laining again. After that, some more men (including myself) were brought back in and he did it yet again. Finally, the rest of the men were brought back into the shul and this time, he lained the Maftir with the b'rachos. I'd probably be lying if I said there wasn't a single dry eye in the house, but there certainly were quite a few more wet ones than there are at a standard Bar Mitzvah. After his aliyah, while we were all singing Mazel Tov, his Bar Mitzvah teacher picked him up and began dancing with him. You could see the love and caring that he had for that child.

To my surprise, Reuvain wasn't quite done. After finishing the Maftir (and after one more "practice session" without everyone leaving the room), Reuvain recited the b'rachos for the haftorah and then proceeded to read the entire haftorah (and recite the b'rachos afterward), an accomplishment that completely shocked and amazed not only myself, but just about everyone in shul. The Rav of our shul, a fellow who doesn't often get flustered, was so completely moved by Reuvain's accomplishment that he could barely speak. You could hear his voice breaking from emotion as he gave the d’rasha (or as much of it as he could) after the haftorah was completed.

In addition to Reuvain's accomplishment, there was also the attitude of the people in the shul. The whole process of getting Reuvain comfortable enough to be able to lain added about thirty minutes to the davening. It certainly would have been within the rights of anyone in the shul to stand up and protest on grounds of tircha d'tzibbura. But the fact of the matter is that no one complained about the delay or about being asked to leave the shul and return. Everyone did it willingly for this special young man.

I’m not normally the type of person to get chocked up or overly emotional. I sometimes like to pride myself on my ability to keep my emotions reasonably in check. In addition, I have over twenty years experience in teaching bar mitzvah boys how to lain and nearly twenty years experience as a parent. I sometimes like to think that, when it comes to Bar Mitzvahs, I’ve “seen it all” and that there is little that can move me emotionally.  For example, when Walter and George became Bar Mitzvah, I was certainly very joyous and felt a lot of pride, but I did not become all choked up about it. But for this little boy things were different. This is a kid – no, make that this is a young man – who has had to struggle to developmentally grow and thrive in his life. This is a young man who, because of his dedication and the love and devotion of his parents and teachers, was able to get up on his Bar Mitzvah day and exceed everyone’s expectations of what he was able to accomplish.

Some people may have been able to hold their emotions in check. The Rav of the shul, as I mentioned above, was barely able to. As for me, it was hopeless. I was too overcome with emotion.  After the Rav finished speaking, I went into an isolated spot of the shul, and I sat down and cried.

The Wolf

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Arson In New Square... and the Silence That Followed.

This week, Shaul Spitzer, a New Square man,attempted to burn down own the house of another New Square man.  Spitzer arrived at the  home of Chaim Aron Rottenberg at around 4:00 on Sunday morning, armed with Molotov cocktail-like devices.  Fortunately, Rottenberg woke up before Spitzer could set fire to the house, killing Rottenberg and his family.  Instead, Rottenberg confronted Spitzer. At some point, the incendiary device was lit, with Rottenberg suffering third degree burns over 50% of his body.  Spitzer, who was also burned during the confrontation, has been arrested and charged with arson and attempted murder.

It turns out that this is not the first time that Rottenberg and his family have been targeted.  In the previous few months, there have been nighttime protests outside his home (complete with calls such as "Sheigetz get out of New Square"), car and home windows have been smashed and other acts of intimidation.

You may ask what it was that Rottenberg did to deserve all this.  Did his wife act in a non-tznius fashion?  Did he read Rabbi Slifkin's books?  Does he author a blog? 

The answers to the above questions are no.  Rottenberg's crime, for which he and his family were going to be murdered, was davening in the wrong minyan.  Apparently, in New Square, the Rebbe had instituted a rule years go that everyone must daven in the main shul in New Square.  Rottenberg, for whatever reason, chose instead to daven in a minyan in a nearby nursing home.  For this reason, his family has bee the subject of intimidation and harassment for months.

I believe that when something like this happens, a community is obligated to stop and re-evaluate itself.  While the actual act of arson may have been the work of a lone person*, the campaign of harassment was not and surely was endorsed by communal leaders.  When a community allows itself to physically harass and intimidate people over the choice of shul, then there is something severely wrong with the community.

The silence of the Skver Rebbe on this matter has been absolutely deafening.  To date, he has not condemned publicly condemned the attack on Rottenberg.  There are at least two possible reasons for this.  The first is that he is so far removed from his congregation that he does not know what is happening.  The second is that he knows what is happening and he approves.  Either way, the Skver Rebbe does not look good.  If he is unaware of a major event such as this, and unaware of the campaign of intimidation that has been going on for months, then his capabilities as a communal leader are virtually nonexistent.  If, on the hand, he knows and approves, then he's no better than a common thug.  Either way, the silence is showing that the Rebbe may well be unfit to lead the community.

When an event like this happens, a community must also stop and remind themselves of their  larger environment.  I'm not talking, in this case, about the chillul HaShem that has come out of this.  What I'm talking about is the attitude of the community concerning their perceived autonomy. 

There are those who believe that the Skver Rebbe has a right to dictate to people which shul to daven in.  Likewise, there are those who feel that it's perfectly all right to use intimidation,harassment and terror -- up to and including arson -- to enforce that rule.  Of course, there are laws against that sort of behavior, laws that, due to the isolation and homogeneity of the town, they feel they can ignore.  There are those who seem to feel that it' perfectly all right for New Square to be run as an absolute theocracy, and that those who don't fall in line should be forced out by whatever means possible.  They will state that New Square has the "right to set standards" for itself and that if Rottenberg or others "don't like it, they should just move."

 Fortunately, we live in a country where that's not the rule.  A community does NOT have the right to set religious standards and then ruthlessly pursue those that don't hold those standards.  It would serve the New Square community well to reflect upon the laws that grant them the freedom to be free from harassment in the first place.  You cannot assert the right to live where you want while practicing your religion and then turn around and deny the same to others.  There's a word for that sort of behavior -- hypocrisy.   And it would do the Skver Rebbe (or whomever is leading the community) well to remember that he, too, is subject to the laws of the United States and the State of New York – and that ordering a person to be harassed out of the community through violence is against those laws.

What is also astounding to me is that there are people who actually defend what Spitzer and the rest of the community have been doing.  They actually maintain that the leader of the community has the right to tell you where you can pray and that if you don’t follow his instructions to the letter, you forfeit your right to live there, you can (and should be) forced out of your home and publicly hounded until you leave.  They support the idea that a group of people should be allowed to set up a mini-theocracy where one person’s word is absolute law and that by living in the area, you surrender any and all rights (both halachic and legal) to which you are entitled. 

But the truth is that they don’t really mean it.  Oh yes, it’s good for them when they control the show, but I’d be willing to bet dollars-to-donuts that if a group of Chassidim moved into a hypothetical isolated Modern Orthodox community and were subject to this type of harassment that they would be registering their complaints as loudly as possible (and rightly so). 

And, in the end, what’s the cause of all this?  Because Rottenberg chose to daven in another shul.  I can’t help but wonder if this is exactly the sort of sinas chinam (baseless hatred) that is mentioned as the cause of the destruction of the second Bais HaMikdash. 

UPDATE:  The victim's name for tehillim is Chaim Aharon ben Chaya Sara.

The Wolf

* or not.  It is as of yet unknown if Spitzer was acting alone or under orders from higher authorities in the community.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Irony... (UPDATED)

You've got to love it when a weekly newspaper such as the Israeli Yated puts the following letter in their paper.

All of the weeklies and freebies, including Mishpachah, distort and blur the holy Torah world view we received from our rabbonim and one should not, choliloh, bring newspapers of this sort into the home or promote them in any way.

And granting any hechsher to such newspapers is clearly out of the question.

This applies even more to radio of any kind and all Internet sites, all of which are provocative and destroy the soul, and are the root of impurities and harm.

Signing at the end of Nisan 5771.

Nissim Karelitz

Perhaps my reading skills are lacking, but do you see any exemption for the Yated (which, I believe is a weekly publication)?

On a side note, it looks like Mishpacha is "officially" out.  

UPDATED (5/6 3PM EDT):  Well, now, that's embarrassing.  S. informs me that the Yated is a daily and not a weekly and hence not included in the above referenced statement.  There goes the point of the post.  My apologies to the Yated for the error.

The Wolf

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Ami Magazine Article About Orthopraxy

Yes, I saw it, and I do have some things to say about it, but it may have to wait until Sunday or perhaps until after Yom Tov.  I've got a crunch of real work and school work at the moment and can't really do justice to this article on the fly.

If you haven't read it yet, you can find it here.

The Wolf

Monday, April 11, 2011

For This You Can't Sign Your Name?

There was a recent post on Matzav about having a positive attitude regarding food on Pesach. In it, the author points out how people often complain (whether rightly or wrongly) about Pesach food and that, perhaps, we can have a better attitude about it.

This is a concept that I think all of us can get behind.  It's completely non-controversial.  And yet, the author chose to sign only his initials.  He didn't choose to actually put his name on the piece.  And that makes me wonder... have we gotten to the point where people are even afraid to speak up on non-controversial subjects?

I'm well aware that, when it comes to this, I fall into the category of "those who live in glass houses...".  But at least *some* of what I write is controversial in some circles.  This gentleman's post was completely non-controversial - and yet, he couldn't sign his name to it.

The Wolf

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Is Our Torah The Exact Same As Moshe's?

In a comment on my previous post, Nate pointed to an article on Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb's website concerning the accuracy of our present-day Torahs.  The article asserts that the Torah that we have today is letter-for-letter* the same as the Torah that God gave to Moshe on Mt. Sinai.  Nate then followed the link with the words "UNDISPUTED AND 100% TRUTH."   Sadly, the point is not undisputed nor is it 100% truth.

The article actually originated on Aish HaTorah's website and can be read here.  The main points of the article are as follows:

  • Moshe wrote the Torah.
  • This Torah (or, perhaps later on, others based on this Torah scroll) were kept in the Bais HaMikdash as a model and standard.
  • New Torah scrolls that were written would be checked against this Torah.
  • Sofrim (scribes) were very careful not to add/delete/change anything since any change makes a Sefer Torah invalid.
  • The Torah has a built-in "security system" that prevents invalid Torahs from being used.
  • The end result is that, as of today, the only variant that exists of the Torah is the Yemenite Torah, which has nine minor spelling variations  from the "standard" version.  These variations are all minor spelling differences (as British spelling differs from American spelling) and do not change the meanings of any words.  Otherwise, every Torah we use today is the same letter-for-letter that God gave to Moshe.
  • This is very impressive because, compared with the Christian Bible (what is commonly called "The New Testament") the Torah is remarkably stable.  The Christian Bible has well over 200,000 variant letters.  We have nine.

Therefore, you can rely, with a high degree of confidence, that the Torah that we have today is *exactly* the same as the one that Moshe left for us at the end of his life.

The problem with all this is that most of those points are either exaggerations or just plain wrong.  Let's go through these points and examine them.

I'm going to grant the author of the article the first two points as given.  If we don't agree that Moshe wrote the Torah, then there is really no point in the rest of the article.  I am also going to assume that he did, in fact, leave a Torah as a standard.

However, it becomes clear that, at some point, that standard became corrupted.  For example, consider the event recounted in Meseches Sofrim.  In it, Reish Lakish recounts that three Sifrei Torah were found in the Bais HaMikdash:

One book was called "The Ma'on Book."  The reason it was so called was because Devraim 33:27 started out with the word "Ma'on."  In the other two, it started out with the word "M'onah."

The second book was called "The Zatutei Book."  It was so called because in it, the text of Sh'mos 24:5 says "And he sent to the  'Zatutei' (young men) of the Children of Israel..."  In the other two books, the word "Na'arei" replaced "Zatutei."

The third book was called the "Hee Book."  It was so called because it had one set of variant spellings of the word Hee in Hebrew, while the other two had a different set of spellings**.

In each case, in establishing the correct reading, the Sages followed the majority.  They rejected the reading of "Ma'on" and instituted "M'onah."  They rejected the reading of "Zatutei" and instituted "Na'arei."  The rejected the spellings in the Hee Book and accepted the spellings in the other two books.  Those readings became the standard and, indeed, are in our Sifrei Torah today.

There are several points that need to be made about this story.

  • The first point to be made is that there was no single model text that could be used to check against.  Indeed, these three texts *were* the model texts that were used.  These were the Sifrei Torah that were found in the Temple Courtyard.  If there was an alternate authoritative text, the Sages could simply have consulted it to determine the correct text for each of the three cases.  The sad fact, however, is that there was no single authoritative text to compare these to -- these *were* the authoritative texts -- and now they were at variance with one another.  As a result, the Sages had to establish the correct text and, in each case, went with the majority.
  • The second point to be made from this story is that the so-called "built-in security system" failed... and failed miserably.  It's one thing if an error creeps into a text in a backwater shul somewhere where perhaps only a few people were even capable of reading the sefer and where, if an error is found in the book, it could be isolated.  This, however, was an entirely different matter.  Here, textual variants are showing up in the model texts themselves.  And, I'd bet dollars to donuts, that these variants didn't just show up in only these three books.  I highly doubt the Sages woke up one morning and decided to check the Temple scrolls against each other just for the heck of it.  I'd be willing to bet that they were getting numerous reports of variant readings and needed to investigate.  And, furthermore, I'd be willing to bet that after an informal survey of the scrolls in their own personal libraries and in the shuls and study halls in Jerusalem (which were probably used on a daily basis), they found variant readings too -- otherwise, why start comparing the Temple scrolls against each other?  So, they went to the Temple to get the authoritative reading, and found that even there, there was no single text.  Clearly, when the authoritative texts have variants, the "security system" has failed.
  • The third, and perhaps most startling point to be made is this -- at the end of the story, we find that *none* of the three authoritative model texts was kosher!  Every single one of them was invalid.  One had a variant reading in Devarim, one had a variant in Sh'mos and one had variants in the spelling of Hu/Hee.  But *none* of the three had the text that we have today!  In other words, in the end, the standard text that we have today was based on a combination of these three texts.

You might think that this settled the matter and that, at least, from this point onward, we would have a unified standard text.  Alas, such was not the case.  There are several places in the Talmud where the Gemara quotes a different text than the one we have.  One of the more famous examples is the Gemara in Sanhedrin where one of the three reading of the word "Totafos" has an extra vav -- and that extra vav is used to help determine that there are four compartments in the Tefillin Shel Rosh.  However, in the end, even the Gemara attests to the fact that we don't necessarily have accurate spellings for all the words in the Torah.  The Gemara states that we are not expert in chasser and malei (i.e. words that have "extra" letters to represent vowels).

The Rambam, in the 12th century, famously went to view the bible today knows as the Aleppo Codex (also known as the Kesser Aram Tzovah), to determine the standard text and spacings in the Torah scrolls.  It should be noted that, obviously, the Rambam did not have a scroll at his disposal which he considered authoritative enough.

Likewise, the Rav Mair HeLeivi Abulafia (13th century) writes in the preface to his work Mesores Siyug L'Torah  that in his day there were doubts as to the correct reading.  He, like the Sages in the Temple, relied on a "majority rules" principle to establish the text which he published in his sefer.  Likewise, Yaakov ben Chayim (early 16th century), who published the first edition of the Mikraos Gedolos, noted that there were variant readings in his day.  Nonetheless, with the adoption of the Mikraos Gedolos and the invention of the printing press, a standard text was finally adopted.

But even that's not the end of the matter.  As noted above, the Yemenites have a slightly different Torah than we do.  Although the author claims that the differences are only spelling there is at least one case where the spelling does change the meaning of a word (from a singular to a plural).  Furthermore, even setting aside the Yemenite Torahs, there is still at least one textual variant extant today -- the final letter of the word "Dakah" in Devarim 23:2 is spelled in some Sifrei Torah with an aleph and in others with a Heh.  But aside from these few cases, the text that we (finally) have today has been standardized.

The article tries to make the case that we can authoritatively state that our Torahs are accurate (vis a vis the Torah gave to Moshe) because of the traditions of the scribes.  For example, the article makes the point that there was a Torah in Jerusalem that was used as the model against which others were judged.  We've already seen that the model wasn't always accurate either, but let's put that point aside for the moment and assume, for the sake of argument, that the model is 100% accurate.  There are still several assumptions that are being made by the author of the article that are not, in fact, in evidence:

The first point to be made is that a model text is only good if it's actually used.  There is no indication anywhere that in the centuries after Moshe that scribes and other people *routinely* brought their Torah scrolls to Jerusalem to check them against the model.  It's not very difficult to see how an error can creep into a sefer and stay there.  Likewise, it's not too difficult to see how an inaccurate version can be copied to other texts.  In a place where there aren't very many Sifrei Torah circulating about (as you can imagine would be the situation in Israel between the time of Joshua and the Exile), it's very easy for an inaccurate text to be copied to another one.

Just consider the three variant scrolls that were eventually found in the Temple.  Do you think that they were first scrolls to have those variations?  Or is it more likely that they were copied from other variant scrolls?  I would argue the latter -- especially if you're also going to posit that scribes were generally very careful with their work.

Another assumption that is being made by the author is that the laws regarding the writing of a Sefer Torah (i.e. pronouncing each word out loud before writing, not writing by heart, etc.) were always the same as they are today AND that those laws were universally observed.  Neither of those (and certainly not in latter) can be said to be true 100% of the time.  It's certainly not inconceivable that there might have been scribes who were less than scrupulous with their work and did, indeed, introduce errors into their work.

Lastly, the author tries to make the comparison between the accuracy of our Torahs and the Christian Bible.  He states that there are only nine spelling variants extant today, while showing that there are thousands of variants of the Christian Bible.

I'm not an expert in the Christian Bible, so I can't speak to that point directly.  But what I do know is that the author is making a false comparison.  The author, in making his point, is outright dismissing any known variant text to our Bible (Yemenite Torahs excepted).  He's conveniently forgetting that there are variations of our text that do exist -- and they're still around today.  The Samaritan Bible, the Septiguant, the Dead Sea Scrolls, et al are all still extant and can be read to this very day.  By forgetting them (or, more likely dismissing them), the author is engaging in a form of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy.  In short, he's claiming the to reject any variants he doesn't like as non-authoritative while, at the same time, holding Christians to task for all their variants.

Of course, Nate makes the very same error when he says "UNDISPUTED" regarding the article.  What he means is "undisputed by anyone who agrees with it," which, again, is a form of the No True Scotsman fallacy. But it's pretty clear that it can, indeed be disputed whether or not the Torah text we have today is a letter-for-letter copy of Moshe's.

The Wolf

* The author of the article does acknowledge that the Yemenite Torahs are different than ours in nine places.

** In later writings, the word "Hee" is written Hey-Yud-Aleph.  However, in the Torah, it is often spelled Hey-Vuv-Aleph, the same as the word "Hu."  However, there are a number of places where the Torah uses the first spelling.  The differences between the scrolls was in where the exceptional spelling was used.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Expunging the Kool Aid

"Drinking the Kool Aid" is a popular metaphor for someone who simply accepts something wholeheartedly without thinking critically about it.  The origin of the metaphor comes from the People's Temple incident in Guyana, where over 900 people committed suicide by drinking Flavor-Aid mixed with cyanide at the behest of Jim Jones, the cult's leader.

Interestingly, at one time I was a Kool-Aid drinker as well.  In my late teens, I went through a period of about a year where I started accepting everything without question.  Young earth creationism?  Check.  The absolute historicity of every midrash?  check.  The notion that Jewish philosophy, culture and practice (with the exception of things like sacrifices and the like) have been unchanged since Sinai?  Check.  The notion that everything in the Gemara is Torah MiSinai?  Check.  Belief in an unbroken and completely intact and unchanged oral tradition passed down from generation to generation to generation?  Check.  And on and on.

Most people who go from Kool-Aid drinker to critical thinker (note that I did NOT say skeptic) arrive at the Kool-Aid stage in one of two ways:  a) they're born into it or b) they become ba'alei teshuva and just want to believe everything about their new-found spirituality.  I didn't take either of those paths.   I was not born frum -- I became frum (with my mother) at about age ten.  During high school, I was a skeptic (even if I wasn't a critical thinker).  Yet, about the time I turned eighteen, I began to drink the Kool-Aid.  A Rav Avigdor Miller book could often be found in my hands.  I could be found discussing and defending Judaism's objections to evolution, natural history, cosmology and the like.  I studied and regurgitated all the fallacious arguments, bad facts and mistaken notions.  I was never much of an evangelist, but if anyone wanted to discuss it, I was there to discuss and defend.

To this day, I can't tell you why I began drinking the Kool Aid.  While I tried to (and to some extent, succeeded) in internalizing it on an intellectual level, I did not "frum out," as the saying goes.  While I sometimes wore a hat/jacket, I by no means made it a requirement.  I sometimes missed davening.  I wasn't found learning every minute of the day that wasn't otherwise occupied, and so on.  But I did accept, without much critical thought, much of the anti-scientific dogma of the subculture that I was immersed in.

At some point, however, I began thinking critically.  I began to look at and evaluate arguments.  I learned to evaluate and weigh evidence.  I began to learn to spot things such as logical fallacies, poor reasoning and just plain silliness.  I began to consider not only the dogma of Orthodox Judaism, but the context in which that dogma was created.  I began to question and probe into the things I was taught, and discover whether the knowledge I had accumulated over the years (and the observations that I made with my own senses) affirmed, contradicted or were silent about those teachings.  

Over the years, as I began thinking more and more, I began adjusting my beliefs.  I reasoned out a version of old earth creationism that was consistent with both B'raishis (IMHO) and with contemporary scientific thought (again, IMHO).  I began exploring history not solely through writings that were made hundreds (or thousands) of years after the fact, but began to consider history through both historical and contemporaneous accounts.  I began to understand that not everything that is purported to be sacred writ *must* be viewed in the absolute, but also has to be put into its proper historical and cultural context.  I began to view our Sages not as simply great figures who grew up in a societal, political and emotional vacuum who were immune to the outside world, but as people who, as great as they were, were at least partly a product of the times, places and cultures in which they lived.  

It’s been a long journey -- one that is still ongoing and, with God’s help, will go on as long as I live.  I’ve slowly begun to make a change to my learning habits -- I’m still learning Torah, but I’ve also begun learning *about* the Torah -- something that was lacking in my previous education and, I would not be surprised to find, is missing in a lot of people’s education.  I’ve begun to pay more attention to not only Tanach, Mishna, Gemara and the like, but also the historical and cultural background upon which they were created.  I’ve come to look at not only learning the halacha, but viewing that halacha as a product of a halachic process that caused it to come into being.  I believe that the Torah has to be more than what is simply printed on the page -- it also has to include how the page came to be -- and in the vast, vast majority of cases, the story of how that page came to be is far, far more complicated than “God said it to Moshe on Sinai.”

I know that there are some who are reading this who would say that what I am engaging in is dangerous and forbidden.  They would like to tell me that such things may lead one away from whatever “pure” hashkafah that they are espousing.  They may try to tell me that context and background are unimportant or, worse, irrelevant.  They may believe that our great leaders and sages grew up in a “social vacuum,” unaffected by their time, place and culture and that their halachic, philosophic and other opinions are absolutely true across all times, places and cultures.  They may believe that if Chazal, Rashi, the Rambam, Rabbeinu Asher, the Vilna Gaon or any other “sage of the canon” says something that it must be true and that any critical thought about their statements is tantamount to a slap in the face of those great sages.  They equate critical argument with impertinence, respectful disagreement with insolence and a contrary opinion with disrespect.

I disagree.  I believe one can have the utmost respect for someone and yet disagree with them.  I believe that it’s possible that things that have been said and accepted in the past may no longer be applicable to our current times, places and cultures.  I’m not saying that halacha has to change because of that, mind you, but it should be recognized that such changes and obsolescence* has taken place.  A necessary corollary of this is that I’ve come to believe that not everything that a sage says is necessarily sacrosanct.  Like anything else, it has to be evaluated in terms of its message, historical context and the like.  In short, I no longer take anything as irrefutable dogma simply on someone’s say so.  That’s is not all to say that there are no irrefutable dogmas, universal truths or articles of faith -- but it is important to be able to make a distinction between a true article of faith, a halachic ruling that may or may not apply to our current situation, a midrash which may or may not be historically true, or a simple, personal observation of a sage.  Lumping them all together as inviolate “Torah” does a great disservice to both the Torah and to those sages.  But to be able to do make these distinctions, you need to begin to think critically about what you’re learning.  You need to learn not to blindly accept everything within the canon as absolute truth.  In short, to do this, you need to stop drinking the Kool Aid -- and that's what I've been doing.  I've spent a long time expunging the Kool Aid that I built up in my system over the years -- and I believe that I am, today, a healthier person and a better Jew for it.

The Wolf

* I don’t mean “obsolescence” in terms of “should be discarded” but in terms of not currently applicable.  In this context, the halacha of egla arufa, for example, would be termed as “obsolete,” but I am not, God forbid, suggesting that it be excised from the Torah or no longer studied.  Likewise, it should be (and widely is) recognized that the reasons behind the institution of the second day of Yom Tov are obsolete... but again, I am not advocating changing the halacha to eliminate that second day.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Yeshiva's Minhag Over Your Family's?

A Jewish wedding ceremony, like many other religious rites and ceremonies, is governed by many laws and customs.  One such instance is the period of yichud -- seclusion -- that the bride and groom spend together right after the chuppah

It should be pointed out, however, that this is *only* the case for Ashkenazim.  When a Sefardi couple gets married, they do not go to the yichud room.  For them, yichud is performed when the couple goes home after the ceremony.  In fact, Rav Yitzchock Yosef considers the idea of a yichud room during the wedding so repugnant that he called it "ugly" and "vulgar."  I don't think it's proper for a Rav to call a mainstream Ashkenazi minhag "ugly" and "vulgar" I made my point on that in the linked post)-- but that's really beside the point.  The main point for our purposes is that there are strong opposition in at least some Sephardi circles against the practice of going into the yichud room.

With this background information, we can look at a recent event.  Rafi, over at Life In Israel, reports on a recent wedding where a Sephardi couple was married.  The chosson attended an Ashkenazi yeshiva and his Rosh Yeshiva and friends from the Yeshiva were in attendance.  The Rosh Yeshiva directed that the chosson and kallah should go immediately after chuppah to the yichud room, in accordance with the Ashkenazic custom.  The chosson refused, intending to follow the custom of his family and the new bride's family.  When the chosson refused, the Rosh Yeshiva announced that he was leaving and ordered all the bochrim from the yeshiva to leave with him.  Fortunately, Rav Raphael Cohen, a guest at the wedding knew someone at a local Sephardi yeshiva, where they had the boys stop learning and go be mesameach (make merry with dancing) the chosson and kallah.

To me, there are some very troubling aspects to this story:

1.  Since when does the minhag of the yeshiva overrule the family minhag of the bride and groom?  Do they also expect their Sephardi students to refrain from eating kitniyos on Pesach in their homes?  Would they say that it's all right for an Ashkenzi student attending a Sephardi yeshiva to skip the yichud room?  I don't think so.  Minhagim have long been observed on the basis of inheriting them from your family, not on the basis of what yeshiva you attend.  Perhaps there is some basis after all to the fear that some Sephardim in Israel have that their minhagim and other cultural attributes are being slowly eroded by the Ashkenazim.

2.  Ultimately, a wedding is valid, even according to Ashkenazim, if the chosson and kallah never go into the yichud room during the wedding.  As long as there are witnesses that they went home together (and were alone together) after the wedding, the wedding would be 100% valid.  On the other hand, embarrassing the bride, groom and their families is a transgression of a Torah prohibition.  How could the Rosh Yeshiva possibly think that his custom (or the custom of his yeshiva, if you will) possibly overrides that?

The Wolf

UPDATE (3/17/11):  A commentator has offered an alternate version of the events.  I have no way of knowing which is true or not, so take your pick.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Against Ban Harassment & Threats

This is a joint statement by many bloggers about the recent ban on VIN and the actions taken against VIN and the companies that advertise on the site.  Kudos to R. Gil Student for drafting this statement and to the other bloggers who were primarily responsible for pushing the effort forward.

A little over a month ago, a number of rabbis signed onto a ban that forbade advertising on or otherwise working with the website VosIzNeias. This ban singled out one website without addressing other websites or public forums like newspapers or magazines. The singling out of a solitary website raises many questions, particularly when newspapers in the same community regularly publish arguably libelous stories and online discussion forums for the community are essentially unbounded by civility. Additionally, VosIzNeias has publicly stated that it has already raised its standards and is willing to do even more with rabbinic guidance, provided the same guidelines are applied to its competitors.

Bans of this nature are generally brought into fruition by activists and this one is attributed to a specific activist who seems to have business and political interests in this ban. He ignored VosIzNeias’ request to meet with the rabbis in order to explore ways to satisfy their concerns. With this ban, the activist is threatening the commercial viability of the VosIzNeias business.

We have now received reports of continued harassment by this activist, who is threatening to publicly denounce people, companies and charitable organizations who continue to cooperate with the website. He has also reportedly threatened to remove the kosher certification of companies that fail to adhere to the ban. However, on being contacted, the activist behind the ban denied all knowledge of this harassment and attributed it to someone acting without authorization. We are, therefore, making no formal accusation as to who is conducting this campaign of harassment.

To the best of our understanding, this activity is illegal. One individual told us he reported that harassment to the police.

Harassing good people with threats is illegal and inexcusable. We call on rabbis and people of good faith to denounce this behavior, and we encourage victims to respond to this activist as follows:

If he calls or e-mails you or your organization, thank him for bringing the ban to your attention and say that you will decide how to proceed after consulting with your rabbi or other advisor. And because of rumors that there is harassment involved in this matter, you regret having to tell him that if he contacts you or anyone else in your organization again, you will have to report him to the police.

We have a copy of an e-mail forwarded to us by people involved, which includes a pseudonym and phone number, and we have been told of intimidating phone calls. Note that at this time we are withholding this activist's identity. If he continues harassing people, we will have to be less discrete.


The Wolf (along with many other Jewish bloggers)

If you agree, please feel free to sign in the comment section and post this on your blog as well.

Friday, February 11, 2011

No, Rabbi, They Don't Need A Guilt Trip.

An interesting article appeared in the Palm Beach Post about a Florida Chabad House that has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  According to Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui, the wealthy patrons who used to fund the Chabad House stopped contributing when the market crashed in 2008.  Now that the market is up, however, the contributions have not resumed. 

Part of the problem is that the business model of the Chabad House makes it dependent on contributions.  According to Robert Furr, the bankruptcy attorney for the Chabad House, Chabad Houses do not charge regular membership dues like many other shuls do. This leaves voluntary member donations as the main source of funding for the Chabad House.  Anyone who runs an organization financed primarily by donations from the wealthy must be aware that when an economic downturn happens (and it always *will* happen -- markets tend are cyclical), that voluntary donations will drop off as well.  I don't know if Rabbi Ezagui curtailed his operations when the recession hit (so as to slow down his burn-rate) or salted away some of the donations from the good years for the lean years (a lesson learned from Joseph), but at this point, he has run out of money and has loans that are due. 

What struck me most about the article was Rabbi Ezagui's sense of entitlement to the charity dollars of others.  Here's the money quote (pun intended):

Ezagui said wealthy people are making excuses not to give.

"The Jewish people who have the money should feel a guilt trip.  They have plenty of money," he said. "I see them in their Rolls Royces, I go to their million-dollar houses and they say, 'I don't have the money, Rabbi.' "

 Apparently, Rabbi Ezagui does not understand that sometimes one can be what is colloquially referred to as "house-poor."  A person can have a lot of their wealth tied up in non-liquid assets that are not easy to dispose of or leverage for additional cash.  In addition, even if someone has a million-dollar home that is completely paid for, you have to take into account that they are actually living there.  So, what is Rabbi Ezagui asking them to do?  Sell the home and move to fund a Chabad House?  Borrow against it to fund a Chabad House?  Do either of those sound realistic or fiscally responsible?

But hey, let's even say (for the sake of argument) that they have cash sitting around.  Even so, Rabbi Ezagui is *still* wrong.  No one *owes* a contribution to the Chabad House.  The last time I checked, people are free to give their tzedaka money to any charity that they wish.  They certainly don't have to give to the Chabad House, nor do they need to be made to feel guilty about where they choose to contribute. 

I known nothing about this particular Chabad House.  For all I know, they are a very worthy institution where wonderous work is done in Jewish outreach.  For all I know, Rabbi Ezagui may be a tireless worker working to bring Yiddishkeit to the masses of Palm Beach.  But he has to learn two things: 

1.  He has to find a new business model that does not rely so heavily on donations from wealthy patrons and is not as susceptable to economic downturns.

2.  His organization is not automatically entitled to other people's money.  He has to learn that there are other competitors for people's money, which include discretionary spending, other charitable options or even basic necessities.  No one needs to feel guilty because they don't contribute to *his* cause.

The Wolf

Monday, January 31, 2011

Photos: Yellow Tulip

Here's a shot that I took a short while ago.

Canon XSi, 100mm macro lens, f/16, 4 seconds.

Believe it or not, this shot was much easier to capture than you might otherwise imagine.  If anyone's interested in how it's done, feel free to drop me an email.

You'll notice that I used an aperture of f/16.  I did this because I wanted to make sure that the picture was going to be in focus from front to back.  Of course, because I used a narrow aperture, I had to use a longer shutter speed -- in this case, I left the shutter open for four seconds. And yes, I used a tripod.  :)

As always, comments, critiques and criticisms are welcome, encouraged and appreciated.

The Wolf

To see all my photo posts, click HERE