Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The New Head of Detroit's Vaad -- An Email Response

I received the following disturbing, distressing email from a community member in Detroit - first directly, and then later indirectly, and because it's now swirling through the Internet, I feel strongly compelled to respond. Yet, in the interests of avoiding lashon hara, I have decided to remove the names of the senders and other related parties. I have taken the liberty to highlight areas that I will respond to. If you want to read the letter, scroll down to the bottom of this post, as I will respond to the tone first and then the content of the letter before posting the actual email for perusal at the bottom.

Dear Anonymous,

I received your email regarding the appointment of Rabbi Doniel Neustadt as the new Yoshev Rosh of the Council of Othodox Rabbis in Detroit with sadness and dismay.

The Tone
More than any of the substantive concerns in your letter, I find the tone and language of your correspondence abhorrent, disrespectful and tasteless, and your hysterics spoke to me more about the writers than the subject. Let me site some examples:
  • ordinary Orthodox citizenry in the Detroit area like you and me will be trampled on.
  • The situation is dire
  • Perhaps someone will find a way to avoid the impending calamity.
  • All is not lost. Before these gloomy predictions have a chance to take place...
  • Please take these warnings seriously
Trampled on? Dire Situation? Impending calamity? Gloomy predictions and serious warnings? Let's understand: we're talking about the hiring of a rabbi who you feel is too right-wing to properly represent our community. Why then use language that seems more fitting for genocide or impending nuclear attack than for what you fear might prevent you from eating kosher Chinese food? Quite simply, it's hard to take anything seriously when a person considers "chumrah" a calamitous disaster to be avoided at all costs. Please calm down -- and then perhaps we can discuss the issues calmly.

Even more disturbing is the email that you forwarded to me written by your correspondent. I don't know how you speak in private, but it's generally a good rule not to write everything you think, nor to email everything you write, and certainly not to forward tasteless emails that you receive. How dare anyone write that a rabbi in town -- one who has invested literally hundreds of hours of his time -- all in your best interest -- in the local Va'ad, that:
  • he has no stones and tries to walk the middle road always
Is there really any place for that type of vulgar language about anyone, much less a rabbi in town -- much less your rabbi? How does our community benefit from vulgarity about its religious leaders? If you were so concerned about our community's well-being, don't you think you should make the effort to watch your language and speak with a little more care? Last I checked, halachah cares just as much - probably more - about what comes out of your mouth than what goes into it. But the message continues:
  • the rag that Neustadt wrote was more than chumra laiden. It was a source of derision and became a Chilul H'Shem rather than a furtherance of Yiddiskeit
Let me understand: because you don't like his halachic positions, you consider his weekly halachah sheet that I read regularly and quite enjoy to be a "rag." Apparently, it's so divisive that you cannot even abide distributing it in your shul. I find it comical that you complain of Rabbi Neustadt's polarizing and intolerant temperament while you can't even allow a sheet of Jewish law from a respected posek to be distributed in your shul. Who's the polarizing figure -- Rabbi Neustadt -- or the members of the so-called "Modern Orthodox" community so fearful of chumrah that they cannot even read about it? Also, at the top of every sheet of Rabbi Neustadt's "Weekly Halachah Discussion" are the words: "For final rulings, consult your Rav." That seems reasonable advice -but only if you can permit yourself to read his sheet.

I will ignore the political swipe that the email made, and not dignify it with a response. Yet, the end of the email seems beyond belief:
  • This is a man who should be given a Teffilas HaDerech the minute he steps into the city
Really? This is a less-than-veiled threat that you will do your best to drive Rabbi Neustadt our of town from the minute he arrives. I cannot imagine a more "polarizing" and "derisive" comment. Even assuming that your fears have basis, should you not follow your own religious guidelines and give the man the opportunity to prove you wrong? Are you so sure of your conviction that you're unwilling to consider that you might be wrong? I could understand a reticence to hire Rabbi Neustadt or even prevent his arrival - but this makes clear that even should he arrive, you will make every effort to impede his efforts in this city and drive him from Detroit. How is that in the interests of Orthodoxy in our city?

The Content
First and foremost, I take issue with your primary contention that Rabbi Neustadt is a "polarizing" and "divisive" figure.
  • I am told that Rabbi Neustadt’s newsletters were unwelcome in Beechwood and that Rabbi Neustadt is a polarizing figure
Who told you this? You simply repeat lashon hara with the intent of harming a man's reputation and livelihood.
  • We were willing to be dazzled by the brilliance of Rabbi Neustadt’s reply but he stonewalled us
Moreover, the incident you cite doesn't leave me convinced either. While at face value it seems that Rabbi Neustadt should have responded to your email, I know neither the tone nor the content of that message. In addition, he never paskins for anyone, and always encourages people to discuss the contents of the parshah sheet with their rav. Did you do this? Were you expecting him to issue a retraction? Your sarcastic tone that you were waiting him "to dazzle me with his brilliance" gives me an indication as to why Rabbi Neustadt chose not to respond to your message.
I agree with you that Rabbi Neustadt's halachic discussion sheets tend to lean towards stringency. But in my experience, any generally written halachic work must, by definition, lean towards stringency because it cannot account for all circumstances that would trigger a leniency. Moreover, I find that whenever people find a leniency they tend to apply it even in inappropriate situations, so I personally am also careful about which leniencies to publish in a publicly distributed communication. So, while he may be machmir in unspecified situations, that by no means indicates that Rabbi Neustadt would apply those very same chumros in private, personal situations. That's simply how the halachic process works.

Let's now turn to the issue of divisiveness and polarity: it seems to me that while individual rabbis may have concerns, there is great unity among us about the need for a new head of the Va'ad, and excitement about the appointment of Rabbi Neustadt. He is a recognized halachic expert having published respected works, he has experience in the areas of kashrus and administration, and has even contributed constructively to the Beis Din in Cleveland. When was the last time the rabbis of the Va'ad could positively come together about a constructive issue? When we finally stand behind a candidate to lead us, it seems to me like he is a unifying figure - at least to this point, and not a divisive one. You see, unlike you I don't need a rabbi to look like me, dress like me, or even pasken like me -- in order for me to give him my support. I support him because he needs that support to bring order to the Va'ad and unity to our community, two areas sorely lacking to this point.

And what of the issue of chumrah? Let's say that Rabbi Neustadt is indeed - as you suggest -- a machmir. (When did that word become a pejorative insult? Some might consider it a compliment.) In which areas of kashrus would you like him to be lenient? Would you like him to check only half the lettuce at a given affair for bugs? Would you prefer that we import improperly salted meat from questionable plants? Or would you rather that the hashgachah only oversee restaurants part of the time, and not constantly? What area of kashrus should we seek leniency in? Personally, I'm rather happy with a Rosh Va'ad who's meticulous about halachic issues.

You seem to be confusing chumrah in halachah with hashkafah and political issues. The posek of the Va'ad will determine kashrus policy: what events require what level of supervision; what agencies we accept and reject; what type of kashering procedures are acceptable in different situations; how should produce be checked for infestation? These issues come up regularly and require a posek to make a final decision that will be applied city-wide, and not by committee as has been the case since my arrival in Detroit. Moreover, they need a person who will be responsible to ensure that the policies are carried out uniformly throughout the city, and not in different establishments based on grandfather clauses, proprietors, and who the mashgiach happens to be. That's Rabbi Neustadt's primary role, and I have every confidence in his ability to make kashrus in our city a source of pride and unity.

But then there are other, more political issues. Ah, the hangout issue. I must say that in my seven years in this city, I have never once heard the argument -- either inside the Va'ad or by a member of the Va'ad, that we should not allow an establishment to open because it will "be a hangout." Perhaps the argument was made in the past, but can we please move on? Seven years is a long time, and we've seen the opening of a pizza store, a donut shop, a sandwich store in the JCC, and a meat take-out store -- all of which have mixed seating! -- without complaint. Now, it could very well be that the rabbis from Yeshiva Gedolah have instructed their students not to hang out in those establishments, but they have been nothing but encouraging about promoting the creation of more kosher establishments in town. In addition, while the Va'ad is hiring a Yoshev Rosh, we're not disbanding. The rabbinic members of the Va'ad will have a full say in issues that it considers super-halachic and political in nature, and will work together with the Yoshev Rosh to address those issues.
Finally, please spare us from wild speculation about what people will or will not do in response to your worst fears. Your "gloomy predictions" only increase your tone of hysteria, and have no basis in fact. If you truly want unity in our community, you will reassess your position and, at the very least:
1. Apologize to Rabbis Neustadt and Morris for your reprehensible tone
2. Give Rabbi Neustadt a chance to settle in and prove himself
3. Give the Va'ad the support that it needs in our community to truly become a communal institution. Choosing to vilify Rabbi Neustadt or the other rabbanim in town who volunteer their time (with no renumeration - but plenty of aggravation), will not drive out anyone -- but instead further isolate yourself.

I conclude by wondering why you included my name on your list of recipients in the first place. Did you think that because I'm a Modern Orthodox rabbi I would speak out against a perceived injustice? Did you think that because I'm outspoken at times I would have the temerity to speak out? I hope that you were right.

I conclude with one of my favorite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Who you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what your saying." It seems that in light of your email, Emerson was indeed correct.

I pray that the Ribbono shel Olam gives our community the wisdom, knowledge and strength to use this new addition to the Va'ad and our city as an opportunity to grow closer to Him, and each-other.

Rabbi Reuven Spolter

If you're interested, here is the text of the email:
I forwarded a copy of my letter to Rabbi Morris to less than a handful of people. Since that time I've spoken to rabbi Morris who has tried to allay my fears. I can't for one moment buy into the notion that Rabbi Neustadt is machmir in his newsletters but otherwise maykil. I told Rabbi Morris that I have every reason to feel that if Rabbi Neustadt occupies the office of Yoshev Rosh Vaad Harabonim of Detroit our ordinary Orthodox citizenry in the Detroit area like you and me will be trampled on.
Rabbi Morris told me, "there's nothing we can do about it because Rabbi Neustadt is hired". There has to be another way. The situation is dire. I no longer feel this discussion should be limited to just a few balebatim. Feel free to forward these ideas. Perhaps someone will find a way to avoid the impending calamity.
In a message dated 2/18/2008 10:53:58 A.M. Eastern Standard Time, Anonymous writes:
Well said. I couldn't agree with you more. This is as important an issue as there is for our shul. It should be brought to the membership for an open discussion. Unfortunately, there is little that our Rav can or will do about it. Let's face it: he has no stones and tries to walk the middle road always. The rag that Neustadt wrote was more than chumra laiden. It was a source of derision and became a Chilul H'Shem rather than a furtherance of Yiddiskeit. This is a Bakst - Torgow appointment and does not bode well for the city. This is a man who should be given a Teffilas HaDerech the minute he steps into the city.

In a message dated 2/17/2008 10:16:28 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, anonymous writes:
To: Rabbi Morris
From: Anonymous
I was dismayed to read that Rabbi Doniel Neustadt has been invited to become the Yoshev Rosh Vaad Harabonim of Detroit. His weekly newsletter on halacha l’meisa formerly distributed in our shul was dubbed the “Chumra of the Week Rag” by some of our Southfield wags. His approach to yiddishkeit is something many in our shul find distasteful.
An example of his cavalier attitude towards criticism is the following:
I attempted to contact Rabbi Neustadt via email regarding his two part series on taking medicine on shabbat. The email was delivered but went unanswered. I had written a letter to point out several items in his newsletter that not only conflict with good medical practice but actually can cause serious harm. A dozen of our physicians and allied medical professionals in our shul signed the letter along with me. In addition there were another dozen who were in agreement with the letter but didn't want to get involved to the extent of signing a letter. We were willing to be dazzled by the brilliance of Rabbi Neustadt’s reply but he stonewalled us. This was not the only issue to which our group took exception.
Rabbi Neustadt is Rav of Young Israel of Cleveland Heights (at the Academy Bldg). I know it well. I was a member there when the distinguished and revered Rav was Rabbi Schubert Spero. I remain in contact with members of Young Israel in the Cleveland area, many of whom have moved to the newer Young Israel in the Beechwood suburb. I am told that Rabbi Neustadt’s newsletters were unwelcome in Beechwood and that Rabbi Neustadt is a polarizing figure.
We in the Detroit area are not well served by leadership that is divisive. You may have known Rabbi Drucker of Young Israel of Oak Park around whom a swirl of machlochet was a constant state of affairs. The shul suffered from this and it wasn’t until he left that the shul was able to get itself together to grow again.
How much more important is it that the Rabbinic chairman of the Council of Orthodox Rabbis of our entire community be someone whose personality is unifying rather than divisive. The last thing we need is a Vaad ha-ir that is known by its chumras and polarity. Already we have one of our major kosher caterers under hashgacha outside of the local Vaad. This caterer receives hashgacha from the star K.
From time to time Rabbis of the Conservative Movement have threatened to establish their own kasthrus authority. The hiring of Rabbi Neustadt portends a situation to which the Conservative Rabbis may no longer be willing to allow the Vaad to have a monopoly on kosher food supervision. This would be their opening and we would all suffer because major community agencies like Federation, the Senior housing agencies that supply meals and major community dinners might also come under haschgacha that we would find unacceptable.
Think also of the potential loss of revenue for the Vaad. Loss of income due to competing hashgacha agencies and reduced support from business interests. Supporters of the Vaad in the past who have Conservative affiliations have been the former Farmer Jack Markets, Paul Borman formerly head of Farmer Jack markets might choose the Conservative Kasthrus agency to support. I don't know Jim Hiller's affiliation but he too may withdraw some or all of his support.
All is not lost. Before these gloomy predictions have a chance to take place it would be wise for the Vaad to find a face saving way of withdrawing their offer ot employment to Rabbi Neustadt. As a member of the presidium of the Vaad you can exert the kind of influence now that will avert calamity. Please take these warnings seriously.

1 comment:

  1. Rabbi Spolter:

    A very appropriate response. Thank you for saying so eloquently what I would have liked to. I was disappointed when I was forwarded the same email you responded to and was hoping for a proper response. I hope our community gives Rabbi Neustadt a chance - especially those who feel the VAAD has lost credibility within our community. Rabbi Neustadt is coming to bring the broad Jewish community together. We should welcome his move and support his and the entire VAAD's endeavors.

    Steve Katz


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