Thursday, December 31, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shemot - Bringing Children into a World of Misery

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shemot - Bringing Children into a World of Misery

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the slavery in Egypt is the fact that Jews continued to have children over the decades of slavery. Why did they continue to reproduce? According to the Midrash, they almost didn't want to, and we almost did our job for Paroh. Along the way, we also discuss how Paroh thought that his plan to kill Jewish boys would work, when things don't really seem to add up.

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Conversion Standards, and the Debate about Private Conversion Courts in Israel Today

Over the past several months, the media in Israel has made a great deal of noise about the private conversion court convened by Rav Nachum RabinovitchIt seems clear to me that there's a great misconception about how gerut takes place here, and the standards for conversion. Truth be told, I myself did not really understand the full picture until I heard a talk from Rav Yisrael Rosen of Tzomet during a Yom Iyyun at my son's yeshiva. Rav Rosen has been intimately involved in the Rabbanut Conversion Courts for many years.

Rav Rosen speaking at the Yom Iyyun in Ma'aleh Adumim
First we must ask ourselves: why is there such a thing as a conversion court at all? Why not just go to the regular Beit Din? With the first waves of aliyah from the former Soviet Union, it became clear that the normal batei din were not equipped or willing to handle the kinds of cases that were coming before them. Applying the regularly accepted (and rather stringent) standards that are common in Chutz L'aretz made the process impossible, and a dayyan who wished to be lenient would be criticized by his colleagues. Ask a dayyan today from the "regular" battei din - from any stripe - RZ, Chareidi, etc - about the giyyurim and they'll immediately say: "I don't have anything to do with giyyur." These battei din are a separate entity, not related to the Beit Din structure. The only official connection that they have is that they require the Chief Rabbi's signature to be acceptable in the secular context of the State of Israel.

Rav Rosen explained that in the early 90's, Rav Bakshi Doron approached a number of leading RZ rabbis asking them to deal with the giyyur issue. They established a beit din system as well as a framework of machonei giyyur - essentially giyyur seminaries - aimed at training potential candidates for conversion. These rabbis explicitly view these conversions not only in a halachic framework, but also in an ideological framework, hand in hand with the Religious Zionist view of the State itself. He quoted one explanation that the אובדים מארץ מצרים would be non-Jews who were lost to their ancestry over time, and would one day return the Land.

For this reason, these Batei Din do not see their role as adversarial to the potential convert. They never ask any "gotcha" questions, and see themselves as guides, looking to help people who wish to join the Jewish nation. A very high percentage - well over 90 percent - of the candidates who apply to convert are in fact converted in the framework of the conversion courts. He explained that they're not looking to "catch" anyone, and if someone declares the intention to keep the mitzvot, then they take them at their word. 

This is the basis for most of the conversions taking place in the framework of the rabbinate. The situation is even more "lenient" (for lack of a better word) in the IDF, where candidates in the Netiv program study a three-month program about Judiasm before conversion. It is common knowledge that a very significant percentage of these converts do not keep Shabbat or kashrut in any normative manner. This is not to say that they don't keep mitzvot. But we would not consider them Orthodox. Rav Rosen actually lamented that not enough people convert in Netiv, where they're easy to target as candidates for giyyur, as they're stuck in the army anyway.

Let me be clear: the current standards already in place for decades are far, far below the standards of any Beit Din in the United States that I am familiar with - and intentionally so. The entire network of Batei Din for giyyur was created specifically to encourage as many Russians as possible to convert. This also explains the entirely legitimate criticism of Rav Sherman (from the regular battei din) and many of his chareidi and non-chareidi colleagues, who disagree entirely with the methodology and ideology that created the batei din l'giyyur, and question their validity. The only reason these many thousands of conversions are accepted today is because Rav Ovadya Yosef accepted them and was willing to sign the conversion certificates.

The new conversion court in session
When Rav Rabinovitch ruled that in his opinion a beit din can convert a minor child despite the fact that his mother is not a Jew nor converting herself, he wasn't deviating from accepted halachic norms in the Beit Din system. The issue isn't that controversial, ironically. Even Rav Moshe allowed the practice. (In an interesting twist, Rav Kook explicitly forbade such conversions.) But Rav Rabinovitch is deviating from the Rabbanut policy, one that Rav Yitzchak Yosef doesn't accept. Rav Rosen and Rav Druckman actually agree halachically with Rav Rabinovitch's psak. They just don't think that he should attempt to implement it with a private Beit Din because of the legal ramifications here in Israel. Essentially they're afraid that if the Israeli Supreme Court allows Rav Rabinovitch's (and Rav Riskin's) unlicensed conversions, what's to stop a Conservative Beit Din from doing its own conversions that would then have to be accepted by the State? (Good question. Answer: nothing.) 

To sum up: The new private Beit Din isn't a geirut of a different standard than the current rabbinate standard. That ship sailed long ago. It's a political fight about power and control (as is almost always the case), with the current Chief Rabbi (Rav Yosef) unwilling to sign on giyyurim that Rav Rabinovitch feel's are a critical and relatively simple tool - giyyur kattan - for addressing an ongoing demographic problem in the Jewish State.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Conversations We're Not Having: Racism and Rage

This week, a firestorm erupted in Israel surrounding a wedding celebration during which teenagers glorified the murder of an infant, dancing with knives, guns, mock Molotov cocktails, and most shockingly, mock-stabbing the picture of an Arab child killed along with her parents in a firebombing of the family home several months ago. (The government has not, as of yet, definitively proved who perpetrated this terrible crime.) These youths in Israel are known as נער הגבעות - "hilltop youth" - who advocate an extreme right-wing ideology devoted to ארץ ישראל השלמה - Jewish control over the entire Land of Israel.

With the release of the videos, political, government and religious leaders from every stream rushed to condemn this phenomenon. The left saw this as a golden opportunity to condemn the right - and specifically the religious community. But even right-wing rabbis and politicians have loudly proclaimed: "This isn't us! This doesn't represent our community!"

I attended a talk at my son's yeshiva during which the Rosh Yeshiva quoted an anonymous acquaintance who he described as "a leading, well-known right-wing rabbinic leader." He said that the rabbi said to him, "These kids don't even listen to me! You can't talk to them."

All of the rabbinic declarations seem hollow to me. Are we really to believe that this group of teenagers somehow created themselves? They made up their own ideology, without a leader or a teacher?  There's no talking to them, and they don't listen to us? I think that they're listening to their rabbis and their teachers, and getting a clear message. I'm not suggesting, God forbid, that any rabbi glorifies murder. But they are hearing a steady message that's very easy to misinterpret and translate into an extremist view that justifies horrible acts.

Take the following example from a video report of the wedding of the child of Rabbi Benjy Gopstein, a well-known leading right-wing rabbi. He told the reporter that there are no Arabs at his weddings - only Jewish employees. What if an Arab waiter came to serve food?

Let's just say that if there was an Arab waiter here,
he wouldn't serve the food.
When asked what he meant by this, he said:

It would seem to me that he would be looking
for the closest hospital.
Really? An Arab worker comes to serve food at the wedding, and the crowd of young people would beat him until he needed hospitalization?

This is an extreme example, but just one of the many ways that many rabbis preach racist values within the religious community. Hatred for the Arab population isn't something that's explicitly advocated. Rather, it's an insidious assumption and underlying value communicated in numerous ways. How many rabbis condemned Rabbi Gopstein for saying these and so other hateful comments? Can we then be surprised if the children who follow him translate his words into actions? Of course he would never advocate throwing a firebomb into a house. But would it be so difficult to imagine a teenager, hearing him advocate beating up an Arab waiter, then deciding to take action on his own?

"They're not listening to me?" Sorry rabbi, I think that they're hearing you loud and clear.

At the same time, these teens are expressing an emotion that's natural, normal and expected. Yesterday (Dec. 23, 2015), we read about three more attempted murders against innocent Jews. Two days ago, two men were murdered (one by multiple stabbings, and one in the crossfire) when two Arabs attacked them without provocation.
Another death. Another shiva. More posts of outrage on Facebook. 
Ho hum. 
It just makes you angry. Furious.
Where's the anger? Where is the rage? What are we doing about this? 
We have become so inured, so accustomed to the daily murder of Jews in Israel that we're not longer outraged. In fact, we no longer react with any emotion at all, because you simply cannot allow yourself to become upset and angry on a daily basis. It's just not healthy.
So we do nothing.
Teenagers, full of vitality, idealism and passion, don't understand. They're outraged! They're angry! And they're right! This situation is outrageous. The adults honestly don't know what to do about it. They see videos featuring thousands of Arabs dancing with knives, promoting the murder of men, women and children. They see a society that glorifies those murders, and encourages children to perpetrate more murder of innocents. And they wonder: why doesn't any do anything? Why doesn't anyone stop this madness? These are very good questions, to which we - the adults - don't have good answers.

Let leave the "hilltop youth" aside for a moment - even though they're all of our children. What about the rest of the kids: those growing up today in Yad Binyamin, or Jerusalem, or Petach Tikvah. They live with the ramifications of terrorism every day. It affects they way they take the bus to school; how they hang out at the mall; it's what their parents talk about around them all the time. It's easy to criticize "racist" Israelis (and settlers) from the comfort of the United States, or the relative security of Yad Binyamin (although truthfully, there's no way of really securing anywhere in Israel totally). How do you teach young people, who grow up experiencing hatred every day not to hate back? How do you combat hate when your experience tells you that you are hated - and hunted - and there are practically no voices from within the Arab world speaking out against that hatred?

Discussing the issue of why rabbis don't speak out against racism against Arabs (and all too often actively promote it), my wife asked me: "How do you know that most rabbis agree with you? Don't you think that deep down, they look at you as a liberal American, raised with your liberal values? Perhaps rabbis don't speak out against Benjy Gopstein because on some level, they agree with him?

I have no idea how to even begin to answer these questions.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Parshat Vayigash - the Wagons of Yosef

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayigash - the Wagons of Yosef

According to the Midrash, Yosef specifically sent wagons to pick up his father in Cana'an, but also to send him a secret message. What was the nature of that message? Did Yaakov get the message? Do we?

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Parshat Miketz - Turning Dreams into Reality

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Miketz - Turning Dreams into Reality

When dealing with global tragedy and struggle, the world often attempts to address the crisis without addressing the underlying problem that generated the crisis. We all know about the famine in Egypt. Yet, have we ever wondered why there was a famine at all? Yosef did. And what he did to address that problem may surprise you. We also address a beautiful thought about Chunkah from the Maharal, talk about the problem in addressing the Agunah crisis, and finally offer my solution for the battle of the West vs. ISIS. All in less than an hour.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Just Say No! to Sufganiyot

This morning I found myself at Roladin working (waiting for my car to finished being serviced), all the while staring at the counter of sufganiyot staring me in the face. I'm just going to come out and say it: I don't get the whole sufganiyot thing. Really, I don't.

Don't get me wrong. I've got a sweet tooth so bad that I have to go cold turkey to stay away from sweets. But the Jelly Doughnut Month-long madness that seems to take over Israel leaves me bewildered. Do people really think these things are so good? Why the mounds of different types of candy on top? If I really wanted a shot of caramel liquor, do you think that I'd want it on top of a day-old piece of fried dough filled with artificially flavored jelly? If people like sufganiyot some much, why don't they eat them during the rest of the year? We're the victims of a mass marketing machine that has learned to co-opt Jewish tradition in the name of gluttony and corporate profits! (OK, that was a bit over the top, but you get the point).

If you want to enjoy sufganiyot, make a batch at home. Smear on some fruit preserves, and eat them fresh. Once over the duration of the chag. Your acid reflux and your waistline will thank you.

Chanukah Sameach!