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01
Nov
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My Article in the JT NEWS

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For most Americans, November means Thanksgiving is just around the corner. This year, in an unusual confluence of the Gregorian and Jewish calendars, Hanukkah falls out on Thanksgiving. According to my sources, it will only happen again in the year 79,811! This year’s reality, then, offers a unique opportunity to reflect on Hanukkah independent of the atmosphere of the American holiday season. 


We are all familiar with the Hasmoneans’ unlikely military victory and the miracle of the cruse of oil. But if we delve deeper, we should ask: What was the root of the conflict between ourselves and the Greeks? Our sources state that on the Greek agenda was the spiritual annihilation of our people; since the Greeks knew us as the “People of the Book,” they attempted to rob us of this identity. In the words of the Hanukkah prayer Al Hanisim, inserted into the Amidah and the Birkat Hamazon, the plan was “to cause us to forget Your Torah and have us transgress Your statutes.” 

And yet the Greeks themselves, immersed in art, literature and philosophy, were anything but anti-intellectual. Why, then, does Jewish tradition characterize the Hellenistic influence as “darkness?” What was there about the Greek orientation that posed such a threat to Jewish survival? 

The answer may lie in the nuanced language of the Al Hanisim: We don’t assert that the Greeks opposed Torah learning per se, but that they threatened hukei ritzonach, Your statutes. The Hellenists supported Torah study only as a branch of Greek wisdom, as another intellectual discipline. Jewish resistance against such an orientation, and the ultimate rediscovery of the flask of oil, prompted the sages to institute the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah for eight consecutive days. Each Hanukkah night we celebrate “Ki ner mitzvah v’Torah or” — “A candle is a mitzvah, and the Torah is light.” The pure oil with the Kohen Gadol’s stamp mirrors the rekindling of an authentic, Godly Torah that had been withheld from us. 


In the wake of the Pew Research Center survey on American Jews, many of us parents, educators and communal leaders have begun to re-examine the messages we are conveying and the direction in which we are taking our respective Jewish families and communities. Along with an emphasis on Jewish engagement and the appreciation of diversity within our communities, it’s now time to ask some tough questions: Are we, the Jewish leadership, also successfully conveying the eternal, immutable components of Jewish belief and practice? Are we effectively transmitting the profundity and beauty of a personal life built on Torah study and mitzvot? Are we igniting the uniquely Jewish flame in the souls of our fellow Jews? 


In a recent blog post in the Times of Israel, Prof. Jeffrey Woolf of Bar Ilan University remarked on the stark contrast between the Pew findings and a parallel Israeli study. Prof. Woolf notes: 
The findings are almost symmetrical opposites. Israeli Jews believe in God (over 80 percent). There is a Jewish Renaissance (in Study, Culture, and Observance) in Israel that literally boggles the imagination (even as it confounds the usual definitions of Religious and Secular). And, while individualism and individual expression are certainly not absent, the sense of national cohesion, what we call bayachad, is movingly strong.

Woolf observes that while Judaism protects and values the individual, it makes demands upon him. Instead of striking a balance between Jewish particularism and universalism, “American Jews,” Woolf laments, “have attempted to effect that separation by totally recasting and denuding Jewish tradition, in order to align it with contemporary mores.” 

On the eve of Hanukkah 5774, we as a Jewish community must consider certain existential issues that we have been avoiding until now. Comfortable in our respective “denominations,” preaching to the converted, many are realizing that we have been lulling ourselves into believing that everything will be just fine. 


Question: If the Jews of the first Hanukkah took such an approach, what would the Jewish world look like today?

Rabbi Meyers is rabbi of Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, head teacher of the new women’s learning program, “The Midrasha of Seattle,” and a rebbe of Talmud and Chumash at Northwest Yeshiva High School.

 

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24
Oct
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Dennis Prager's Post-Pew Ponderings

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I am reprinting this article as part of our ongoing pondering over the results of the Pew Report. As I have discussed, I do not love the denominational thing; in fact I think it's one big sham, categories that have been devised to divide the Jewish people. But the labels are part of the reality of the Jewish world, and Prager's article should be read in that light.  What he effectively is saying - if I could rephrase it - that the beliefs, practices and commitment of Jews who guide their lives by Torah help perpetuate the Jewish people. This is not a triumphalism, but a call to all Jews to see themselves as life-long learners - RM

Why Orthodoxy is growing

BY DENNIS PRAGER

As almost every Jew knows by now, according to major reports on American Jewry — such as the most recent and most highly regarded Pew report — Orthodoxy is growing, while Conservative and Reform Judaism are shrinking.

Before presenting my explanations, I think it important to note that I have no denominational ax to grind. I was raised Orthodox, and went to yeshivas through the end of high school. But I left Orthodoxy early in life and have always been involved in Jewish life — Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Chabad, Jewish federations and writing for Jewish publications.

In a nutshell, I wish all Jewish endeavors well.

I believe that Orthodoxy is prevailing and that the non-Orthodox denominations are diminishing for the following reasons:

First, Orthodoxy makes more religious demands on its followers (and they are demands, not suggestions). Orthodoxy demands strict religious ritual observance — at the very least, Shabbat, kashrut, daily prayers with tefillin (for men), and regular attendance at synagogue on Shabbat and all the holidays (how many non-Orthodox Jews can even identify Shemini Atzeret, as much a Torah holy day as Passover?).

I can cite a personal example to prove this point. Non-Orthodox Jews nearly always assume that I am an Orthodox Jew when they learn that I do not broadcast on Shabbat or on any of the Torah holidays. If many Reform and Conservative Jews took all those days off from work — as the Torah demands — few Jews would make that assumption. (I do broadcast on yom tov sheni, the rabbinically added day for Jews outside of Israel.)

Like all other religions (with the prominent exception of Protestant Christianity), Judaism has not been able to survive without ritual observance.

Second, the more Orthodox one is, the more he or she is likely to live among Orthodox Jews. One’s entire social life (outside of work) revolves around fellow Orthodox Jews. That makes it, to put it gently, very difficult to leave Orthodoxy. If you do, you are likely to lose your whole support system and probably most of your friends, as well. You may even risk alienating your family.

Third, the great majority of Orthodox Jews send their children to Orthodox Jewish day schools — usually through high school. The Orthodox child rarely has close non-Orthodox, let alone non-Jewish, friends, thereby reinforcing Orthodoxy both experientially and socially from the earliest age.

Fourth, more Orthodox Jews marry; they marry younger, and they have more children than non-Orthodox Jews. Among other reasons, many non-Orthodox Jews bought the nihilistic nonsense — and the Jewish dead end — of the zero population growth movement. And fewer and fewer of them believe that marriage and children are mandatory. On the contrary, many consider a successful career at least as fulfilling as marriage and family. It would be instructive to conduct a poll among non-Orthodox young Jewish women, asking them this question: “Would you rather have a great marriage and family or a great career?”

I have asked this of many young Jewish women, and at least half have responded that they would choose the great career. Just this week the Huffington Post published a column titled, “6 Reasons Never to Get Married.” The author? A woman named Leah Cohen.

It is hard to get further from Judaism and imperil Jewish survival than having Jewish women value career more than, or even as much as, marriage and children.

Fifth, as if all of the above were not enough, Orthodox Jews believe God chose the Jews and is the ultimate author of the Torah. Very few non-Orthodox Jews believe God is the author of the Torah; but it is inconceivable that Judaism can long survive among Jews who do not believe that God created the world, took the Jews out of Egypt and gave the Torah.

Sixth, Israel is central to almost all Orthodox Jews. Incredibly, and tragically, it is increasingly peripheral to many other Jews.

Seventh, the further from Orthodox Judaism one gets, the more one is likely to adopt leftism/progressivism as one’s moral code and worldview. Just as the Orthodox Jew is steeped in Judaism from the earliest years, most non-Orthodox Jews are steeped in leftism at home and in school from elementary through graduate school. How else to explain the phenomenon of young women thinking career will give their lives as much or more meaning than marriage and family? How else to explain the alienation from Israel among so many non-Orthodox Jews?

I write none of this to make the case for Orthodoxy. I find most of the reasons admirable and a few disturbing. But truth is truth. Any one of the seven reasons would suffice to explain why Orthodoxy is increasing and non-Orthodoxy isn’t. All seven make the case incontrovertible.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

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20
Oct
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Would Our Forefathers Have Sanctioned These Relationships? The Latest from "The Times of Israel"

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Here is another in a host of articles detailing the complete chaos in the value system of significant parts of the modern Jewish world. Despite its rather bizarre content, I am very thankful that the Times of Israel has gone ahead and printed the article. I think it beautifully illustrates what happens when we Jews depart from the halachot set forth by the Torah. 

Note the rather frail response by Elliot Dorf to the phenomenon described in the Times: 

“First of all, the depth of the relationship is much greater if it’s monogamous,” Dorff said. “The chances that both partners are going to be able to fulfill all the obligations of a serious intimate relationship are much greater in a monogamous relationship. I would say the same to gay or straight couples: There should be one person you live your life with.”

An example of the halachic reasoning of Elliot Dorf can be found in the famous 2006 Conservative rabbinical assembly ruling you can find here: 

http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/20052010/dorff_nevins_reisner_dignity.pdf

The full Times of Israel article can be found here:

http://www>.timesofisrael.com/polyamorous-jews-share-love-seek-acceptance/

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16
Oct
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Social Changes in the Israeli Haredi Community

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tovposterThis post is a follow-up to the various discussions we had several months ago - in the context of our Fundamentals class - of the political and social changes taking place in the Israeli Haredi community. At the session on yeshiva students serving in the IDF, I emphasized the economic realities - and not ideology - as ultimately determining the direction of this and related issues.  Back at the RCA convention in June, Dov Lipman was a keynote speaker. It seemed clear to me at the time that Rabbi Lipman, now an MK for Yesh Atid, presented a direction that was in sync with the vast majority of the rabbanim at the convention.  Though to some, the economic and political moves initiated by Yesh Atid seemed to be aimed at, G-d forbid, eradicating Torah learning in Israel, to others, the changes are paving the way for a more sustainable religious life for both Haredi Torah scholars and lay people.

Today's Times of Israel reports on another manifestation of the social changes within Israel's religious community. You can see the article at http://www.timesofisrael.com/new-haredi-movement-is-pro-work-military-service/

 

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06
Oct
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A "P.S." to Wondering about Wolpe

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A short PS to the Wondering about Wolpe blog post: In the course of the Shabbat discussion (and my Derasha earlier that morning) I proposed that the observant Jewish community begin listening more to what our fellow Jews - either unaffiliated or associated with liberal Jewish communities -are saying.  Perhaps if we did so, we could meaningfully impact on a future Pew Forum survey. One EB member asked if I had made a point of entering into a dialogue with my Reform and Conservative colleagues in the rabbinate.  I answered that although I have had some contact with some of the individuals in question, my strong leaning is to follow the approach of joining these colleagues only when it comes to matters of common communal interests, be they charitable, Israel-directed, and the like. I choose not to engage in "interdenominational dialogue" because I do not view myself as a representative of a denomination of Judaism.  In fact, I noted that one of the great strengths of Sephardic Jewry throughout the world is that it never succumbed to the concept of three (or more!) denominations of Jews. We were all at Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah as one people. The fact that in practice, we hold at different points along the continuum of observance and belief, is no reason to institutionalize those differences. A Jewish community that does so encourages fragmentation and dissolution. In contrast, a classical, Torah-based Sephardic congregation such as EB is uniquely positioned to cultivate the authentic sense of what it means to be part of a nation.

In the course of pondering the results of the Pew Forum survey, I came across these words of Reform scholar Eugene Borowitz, cited by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen:

When the Bible was G-d’s book and the Oral Torah had been given by G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai, there was no question why one should give them reverent attention. They were God’s own communications and, in a time when there no longer was prophecy, the best way one could be in touch with the Divine. When Reform Judaism insisted that the various books of the Torah tradition were largely human creations, that had the advantage of allowing unprecedented innovation. It also devalued the old texts and made them less sacred. A simple experience brought the point home to me tellingly. I was teaching a group together with… an Orthodox scholar. After reading a rabbinic passage to the group he put his book down on a desk, but so near the edge that it became unbalanced and fell off. He quickly retrieved it, kissed it, and put it more carefully on the desk, not stopping in the development of the theme he was presenting. Kissing books, particularly when they have fallen, is a nice old Jewish custom which reflects very much more than respect for authors and publishers. It is related to our belief that our books derive ultimately from G-d – that in loving G-d one loves G-d’s words, the Oral and Written Torah. I wonder if liberal Jews with their sense of the humanity of our sacred literature could ever come to such regard for Torah that – leaving aside their sense of propriety – they could ever think of kissing one of its volumes.

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06
Oct
0

Wondering About Wolpe

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gggggThis week, in the context of our Fundamentals of Judaism class, we engaged in a lively discussion about the Pew Forum Report. To read a full version of the report click here: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

Nationally-renowned Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe responded to the report in a recent blog entry in the Washington Post. Wolpe correctly notes that Judaism “is a behavior-centered tradition.  It is primarily enacted in a language strange to most American Jews (Hebrew) and requires an extensive education to understand its fundamentals. Americans are not distinguished by diligence in acquiring cultural literacy.  That which is continually diluted will eventually disappear. ‘Being an ethical person’ while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish.  ’Fighting for social justice’ while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish.  Wearing Tefillin, praying in Hebrew, Torah study, Kashrut, Jewish communal adherence and activities —….are activities that keep the core of the tradition alive. As Jews have left the latter and profess the former, adherence weakens.” You can see the whole blog post here:http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/10/03/can-liberal-judaism-survive/ 

There is much that needs to be examined in light of the Pew survey, and it’s not a time for halachically-observant Jews to pat themselves on the back; more than any other sector of American Jewry, we should internalize this crisis and work tirelessly to respond to the challenges it raises.

That said, I cannot help but comment on the irony of Rabbi Wolpe calling for a return to traditional Jewish values and practices.  More than any high-profile Jewish religious leader in recent memory, Wolpe has gone out of his way to erode key foundations of our tradition.  Without entering the dilemma of how Orthodox congregations should respond to openly-homosexual members of the Jewish community (a topic that is of great interest to the Modern Orthodox rabbinate) I refer you Wolpe’s recent policy-change.  The July 5th edition of the New York Times speaks for itself: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/06/us/rabbi-takes-a-stand-for-gay-marriage-and-a-segment-of-the-congregation-rebels.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

I asked those who attended to today’s class if there was one recurring theme central to Jewish identity and practice, and several quickly responded, “Yetziat Mizraim” – the Exodus from Egypt.  It concludes the Shema, Shabbat, Passover and the other two Torah festivals.  The Seder night is the “educable moment” of the Jewish year! Yet it’s the same Rabbi Wolpe,  calling on Jews to embrace Torah study and traditional Jewish practice - who has declared the Exodus a sham!  

Blogger Mark Nigro writes Wolpe:”Rabbi, how can you simultaneously accept the falsity of the exodus account while holding onto the 'deeper meaning' of its truths? Either the event happened as Moses declared, and we stand on its historicity with the authority of its teachings, or it did not happen, in which case the integrity of the Pentateuch is lost and the rest of the teaching should be rejected. For if it didn't happen, the best we could say was that someone made a mistake, and the worst, that someone intentionally deceived the masses. And neither of these options offers a very stable ground for the feet of faith or the authority of YHWH.”  I think this response would typify the kind of reaction that a young Jew would have to Wolpe’s theories, which pull the rug out from under the potential for inspired, dedicated commitment to a religious Jewish life.

To see the original LA Times report of Wolpe’s 2001 sermon, click here: http://articles.latimes.com/2001/apr/13/news/mn-50481; to see Wolpe’s 2004 article trying to explain himself anew click here: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Judaism/2004/12/Did-The-Exodus-Really-Happen.aspx?p=1

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27
Aug
0

Birthday Wishes and Support for Congressman Reichert on his visit to Israel

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Rep. Dave Reichert, serving his fifth term in the 8th Congressional District in the State of Washington, is currently visiting Israel.  In honor of his birthday this coming Thursday, I wrote the following letter to him; it will be delivered to him during his trip.  EB will continue to proudly support politicians from both parties who openly declare their support for the State of Israel.  We were delighted to co-sponsor the Derek Kilmer talk at Herzl on August 13th and look forward to our continued alliances with members of Congress. 

Birthday Wishes to Rep. Reichert:

http://ravron.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/rep-reichert-birthday-wishes-1.pdf

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01
Aug
0

What Makes Me Orthodox?

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This is a question that I have been asking myself a lot more lately, especially over the past week....Allow me to explain:

During our Fundamentals classes after Kiddush at EB, we have tackled some challenging issues: Army Exemptions for Yeshiva students, the Orthodox Jewish response to homosexuality, the origins and parameters of the concept of "Tikkun Olam" and other such matters. I have made an exerted effort to raise questions that I feel are pertinent to modern Jewish life and to clarify, both through key sources and through a give-and-take with the community, what an Orthodox Jewish approach might be.
Over the past week, there has been an explosion of articles, blog posts, responses and official statements on the topic of the Divine authorship of the Torah.

The idea that multiple human authors co-edited the Torah was made famous by Julius Wellhausen in the late 1880's. It caught on at different rates in the Reform and Conservative movements, and is the subject of much modern debate, most recently in exchanges between Richard Friedman and James Kugel.....

My interest in the topic over the years has dissipated with my increasing exposure to to the depth of study possible in Tanach, the forte of Yeshivat Har Etzion and the Tanach Study Center. With people like R. Yoel Bin Nun and R. Menachem Leibtag at the helm, the profundity of Chumash and Navi has been masterfully exposed -- to the delight of students of Torah the world over. In fact, many of the Chumash shiurim I give on Shabbat afternoon during the "Perasha Insights" slot draw on the brilliant scholarship developing at Yeshivat Har Etzion.

You may ask: "How does studying Torah in the above fashion lessen my interest in Biblical criticism"? My answer: The beautiful literary and thematic weave that emerges when Chumash is studied with a confidence in both its singular authorship and varied and nuanced messages satiates both the spirit AND the intellect.

Meet Rabbi Zev Farber: (from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah website): "A native of Miami, Florida, Zev has a B.A. in psychology from Touro College, an M.A. in Jewish History from Hebrew University, and most recently a Ph.D. in Jewish Religious Cultures from Emory University, where he focused on Hebrew Bible..... In addition to his yoreh yoreh, he received his dayanut (yadin yadin) also from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2010.Zev is a founding board member of the IRF (International Rabbinic Fellowship) and serves as the coordinator for their Va'ad Giyyur.'

On a website called "thetorah.com" Rabbi Farber recently wrote some strong words regarding the Divine origins and authenticity of the Torah. His words seem to echo the approach of many Bible critics. The upshot is that a prominent modern Orthodox rabbi (albeit not serving a congregation per se) seems to have deviated radically from the classical Jewish belief of "Torah Min Hashamayim" - Torah from Heaven. This could potentially have him declared a heretic according to Jewish law. A very serious charge.

Yesterday, the IRF, of which Farber is a member, coordinating its conversion program, released the following statement:  
IRF Confirms Commitment to Torah Min Hashamayim

In light of the recent spirited and important discussions in the community, the International Rabbinic Fellowship takes this opportunity to reaffirm its unwavering commitment to the principle of Torah Min Hashamyim within the parameters outlined by classical Rishonim, Aharonim and contemporary Orthodox rabbinic scholars. We regard this principle as the linchpin of halakhic observance and as an indispensable element of Orthodox Judaism.

Today, the Rabbinical Council of America (to which I belong) issued a more involved statement that I posted on facebook and that can be found here: http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=105768 Now, the passage causing most of the stir can be found on thetorah.com http://thetorah.com/torah-history-judaism-part-3/ Rabbi Avraham Gordimer, of the RCA, wrote a detailed critique of Farber here: http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2013/07/26/belief-in-torah-min-ha-shamayim-damage-control-by-yct/ This discussion has prompted additional posts by R Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton. His article can be found here:
 http://torahmusings.com/2013/07/the-most-important-discussion/ Rabbi Goldberg suggests that the obsession with Farber's statement is far less pressing to Orthodox Jewish communal life than are a myriad of other problems. 

On Wednesday evening, Rabbi Gidon Rothstein wrote an eloquent rebuttal to Rabbi Goldberg on that same blog; it can be found here: http://torahmusings.com/2013/07/three-practical-ways-bad-theology-hurts-us/ Rabbi Rothstein maintains that theology is that from which all else sprouts, and that the maladies of modern Orthodox Jewish life in America perhaps stem from a tangential connection to the theological underpinnings of Torah and Mitzvot.

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15
Jul
0

Times of Israel article for Erev Tisha Be'av

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A special thank you to Julie Ben Simon for calling my attention to today's op-ed in the Times of Israel - a timely message for Erev Tisha Be'av...

http://www.timesofisrael.com/before-we-all-burn-in-hell/#.UeQMW8z7tms.email

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08
Jul
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Tikkun Olam Article - in advance of this Shabbat's class

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This week's Fundamentals topic is "Tikkun Olam: Challenges and Parameters". I encourage you to read the following piece and come ready to share your views: http://ravron.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/ginsburgto.pdf

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05
Jul
0

Additional Articles on Judaism and Homosexuality

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Shmuel Herzfeld's "Chanukah Drasha" http://www.ostns.org/files/December%2015,%202012%20-%20Same%20Sex%20Marriage%20in%20America.pdf

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein's comments - cited by Herzfeld http://pagesoffaith.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/perspective-on-homosexuals/

Rav Aharon Feldman's article on Homosexuality  http://haravaharonfeldmanarticle.weebly.com/

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03
Jul
0

Dov Lipman Front and Center at RCA Convention

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I am writing to you from Manhattan as I prepare to return to Seattle tomorrow. The Rabbinical Council of America convention that I had the good fortune to attend focused on a number of key issues concerning the Jewish community both nationally and internationally. The issue of child abuse in the Jewish and broader community was a central focus as were issues in Jewish education and the need for community rabbis to be more involved in the local Jewish day schools. Internationally, one of the candidates for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi David Stav, spoke to the convention body about changes he sees as crucial to the future of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, prime among them the issue of marriage and conversion in Israel.


A few weeks ago, we had a "Fundamentals" class on the drafting of Yeshiva Students into the IDF and those same students' place in Israeli society. Rabbi Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid, delivered the keynote address on Sunday night; a counter to Lipman was journaliast Jonathan Rosenblum, speaking on Monday. These two men presented very impassioned positions on the topic, but with what I thought, was a great deal of common ground and overlap between the perspectives. Rabbi Lipman, who has been vilifed in certain circles, spoke before the convention with Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Toronto, and much of what he said at the convention, he recorded in this interview, which has been posted on YouTube. I encourage you to watch the interview - and feel free to let me know what you think.
See you this week - Rabbi Meyers

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26
Jun
0

Population Projections for Israel in 2035

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A colleague of mine pointed out a very recent publication by the CBS in Israel; in it, Jewish population in Israel is expected to increase signficantly throughout the next 22 years, to 2035.  The balance of Jews vs. other populations is of special interest.

Click on http://www1.cbs.gov.il/hodaot2013n/01_13_170t12.pdf to see the chart summarizing the study - RM

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06
Jun
0

Statement from the Orthodox Union and RCA on Reporting Child Abuse

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Jun 6, 2013 -- The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America reaffirm that any individual with firsthand knowledge or reasonable basis to suspect child abuse or endangerment, or the sale of illegal drugs, has a religious obligation to promptly share that information with secular law enforcement. Further, those deemed “mandated reporters” under secular law must obey their state’s reporting requirements.

Lives can be ruined or ended by unreported child abuse or endangerment, or drug sales, as we are too often tragically reminded. The Torah’s statement in Leviticus 19:16, “Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed," obligates every member of the community to do all in one's power to prevent harm to others.


Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, President of the RCA, and Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President, received the following letter from Rabbi Israel Belsky, confirming his position reporting to civil authorities in matters of child abuse.

 belsky letter

 

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22
May
0

David Brooks, "What our Words Tell Us"

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This article by David Brooks is a must read...

About two years ago, the folks at Google released a database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008. You can type a search word into the database and find out how frequently different words were used at different epochs.

Josh Haner/The New York Times

David Brooks

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"From 1800 to 2013, the word 'family' had a fairly stable use until it began a subtle and slow decline from the Civil War until it reached a low near the end of World War I. It suddenly grew in popularity in the mid-1960s and peaked in the mid-1990s."
flaminia, Los Angeles, CA

The database doesn’t tell you how the words were used; it just tells you how frequently they were used. Still, results can reveal interesting cultural shifts. For example, somebody typed the word “cocaine” into the search engine and found that the word was surprisingly common in the Victorian era. Then it gradually declined during the 20th century until around 1970, when usage skyrocketed.

I’d like to tell a story about the last half-century, based on studies done with this search engine. The first element in this story is rising individualism. A study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases.

That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded.

The second element of the story is demoralization. A study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir found that general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently.

The Kesebirs identified 50 words associated with moral virtue and found that 74 percent were used less frequently as the century progressed. Certain types of virtues were especially hard hit. Usage of courage words like “bravery” and “fortitude” fell by 66 percent. Usage of gratitude words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent.

Usage of humility words like “modesty” and “humbleness” dropped by 52 percent. Usage of compassion words like “kindness” and “helpfulness” dropped by 56 percent. Meanwhile, usage of words associated with the ability to deliver, like “discipline” and “dependability” rose over the century, as did the usage of words associated with fairness. The Kesebirs point out that these sorts of virtues are most relevant to economic production and exchange.

Daniel Klein of George Mason University has conducted one of the broadest studies with the Google search engine. He found further evidence of the two elements I’ve mentioned. On the subject of individualization, he found that the word “preferences” was barely used until about 1930, but usage has surged since. On the general subject of demoralization, he finds a long decline of usage in terms like “faith,” “wisdom,” “ought,” “evil” and “prudence,” and a sharp rise in what you might call social science terms like “subjectivity,” “normative,” “psychology” and “information.”

Klein adds the third element to our story, which he calls “governmentalization.” Words having to do with experts have shown a steady rise. So have phrases like “run the country,” “economic justice,” “nationalism,” “priorities,” “right-wing” and “left-wing.” The implication is that politics and government have become more prevalent.

So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

This story, if true, should cause discomfort on right and left. Conservatives sometimes argue that if we could just reduce government to the size it was back in, say, the 1950s, then America would be vibrant and free again. But the underlying sociology and moral culture is just not there anymore. Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.

Liberals sometimes argue that our main problems come from the top: a self-dealing elite, the oligarchic bankers. But the evidence suggests that individualism and demoralization are pervasive up and down society, and may be even more pervasive at the bottom. Liberals also sometimes talk as if our problems are fundamentally economic, and can be addressed politically, through redistribution. But maybe the root of the problem is also cultural. The social and moral trends swamp the proposed redistributive remedies.

Evidence from crude data sets like these are prone to confirmation bias. People see patterns they already believe in. Maybe I’ve done that here. But these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.

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17
May
0

Israelis Developing "Google Glass" for the Blind

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The magazine "Israel21C" has some great articles on modern technological developments in Israel. Here's a recent post on their website:

In the not-so-distant future, people blinded by retinitis pigmentosa may be using Israeli technology to see beyond shadows once again. By Karin Kloosterman (Israel 21c)

About one in 4,000 people in the United States suffers from retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic disease of the retina that causes light-sensing cells to degenerate and eventually leads to vision impairment. Symptoms might start as night blindness.

Recent advances in optogenetics have opened the possibility of restoring light sensitivity to vision cells using a simple injection and gene-based therapy. But how can these newly programmed cells reconnect with the brain to process images? This is the million-dollar question.

Israeli researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa have found a futuristic and bionic way to bypass neural circuitry and directly stimulate restored vision cells with a computer-driven technique called holography.

The researchers have developed a tool to photo-stimulate retinal cells with precision and high resolution, suggesting that one day in the not-so-distant future, people blinded by RP may see beyond shadows once again.

“It’s something like Google Glass for the blind,” Prof. Shy Shoham from the Technion tells ISRAEL21c, referring to Google’s wearable computer with a head-mounted display, set to be released later this year.

“We did not develop optogenetics and it’s a young technology, but it is firmly established and the potential is recognized. What is missing, and what we are offering, is a powerful solution driving the neural networks of these optogenetically restored cells.”

Shoham explains, “What our system will do is activate these cells with patterns. It’s a system that drives the projection of ‘movies’ powerful enough to stimulate retinal cells artificially.”

Like any responsible scientist, Shoham, an engineer and lead scientist of this new research presented in Nature Communications, is not offering false hope to people who are already blind. Unfortunately, he cannot help them. But if a significant financial investment were to be made in the project, “clear” results could be seen in the future.

Restoring sight in mice; humans next?

“The basic idea of optogenetics is to take a light-sensitive protein from another organism, typically from algae or bacteria, and insert it into a target cell, and that photosensitizes the cell,” Shoham explains.

However, the genetically repaired cells are less sensitive to light than normal healthy retinal cells, so they need a bright light source — a laser, or in the new research project, a holograph — to be activated.

The researchers plan to develop a prosthetic headset that looks like the new Google Glass, or create an eyepiece that would translate visual scenes into light, which would stimulate the genetically altered cells.

The Israeli scientists used computer-generated holography to stimulate repaired retinas in mice. The light stimulus was intense, precise and capable of stimulating many cells at one time, which are all necessary for proper vision.

They previously tried lasers and digital displays used in projectors, but both approaches had their drawbacks.

“Lasers give intensity, but they can’t give the parallel projection” that would simultaneously stimulate all the cells needed to see a complete picture, says Shoham. “Holography is a way of getting the best of both worlds.”

This new approach could power new retina prostheses being tested in the United States. One called Argus II was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) early this year, but offers only rudimentary vision to the wearer.

“You need to be careful with these things so the technology doesn’t run ahead of us,” Shoham cautions. “The system we are working on can potentially restore vision that is very high quality. But it will take at least five to 10 years.”

The technology also has many potential applications in the field of virtual reality.


 

 

 

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07
May
0

RCA Responds to Impending Maharat Ordination of Women

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A few words  about the following post: You may or may not be aware of the ongoing "innovations" that Rabbi Avi Weiss has introduced into the North American Orthodox community over the past several years.  One of his projects is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, created as a foil to Yeshiva University's RIETS. Chovevei is known for its left-leaning hashkafa and "social action" agenda.  In 2010, Weiss pushed the envelope by giving Sarah Hurwitz the quasi-rabbinic title, "Rabba", with the goal of moving towards Orthodox ordination for women. The Rabbinical Council of America, of which I am a proud member, formulated a clear resolution at the time to respond to the Hurwitz story. Now Weiss' dream has become a reality with an upcoming ordination ceremony for three women at "Yeshivat Maharat".

What makes this issue tough to navigate for most people is the distinction between advanced learning opportunities for women within the Orthodox fold and women rabbis.  This is a nuanced issue that relates to the difference between Torah knowledge and establishing innovations and precedents in Halacha.  It takes poskim with "big shoulders" - those who internalize the dictum איזהו חכם - הרואה את הנולד --- "Who is wise? One who sees what is born of his actions" - to facilitate major changes that will impact on the Torah community for generations to come.  At any rate, here is the RCA statement:

In light of the recent announcement that Yeshivat Maharat will celebrate the "ordination as clergy" of its first three graduates, and in response to the institution's claim that it "is changing the communal landscape by actualizing the potential of Orthodox women as rabbinic leaders," the Rabbinical Council of America reasserts its position as articulated in its resolution of April 27, 2010, that:

"In light of the opportunity created by advanced women's learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage. Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title."

The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community.

About the RCA:
The Rabbinical Council of America, with national headquarters in New York City, is a professional organization serving more than 1000 Orthodox Rabbis in the United States of America, Canada, Israel, and around the world. Membership is comprised of duly ordained Orthodox Rabbis who serve in positions of the congregational rabbinate, Jewish education, chaplaincies, and other allied fields of Jewish communal work
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19
Apr
0

How to Respond to a Tough Week

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Baumanphoto

This has been a very trying week for Americans and for members of a Jewish community in Florida. 

By now, nothing more really needs to be said about the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon.  As I write, Boston police are in the midst of a manhunt for the second bomber, after having killed the first one in a shootout Thursday night. 

In Boca Raton, Florida, 12 year-old Shoshie Stern, daughter of Denise and Rabbi Mike Stern, was tragically killed at an intersection nearly the family home.  The Sterns, whose contributions to Jewish outreach in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and now Boca Raton over the past 20 years is legendary, are still trying to digest the enormity of their loss. shoshiestern

As a congregation that is tuned into what is going on around us, and which waves the banner of Torah, Avoda and Gemilut Hasadim, we should offer a meaningful Jewish response to these two tragedies.

Though we cannot help all of the victims, we can do our part.  There are a number of legitimate campaigns that have been set up to help the Stern family in Boca Raton and Jeff Bauman, the man in the photograph (now viral!) who became a double amputee as a result of the bombing; Jeff was also instrumental in identifying the bombers.

Over the next week, I will be accepting checks for the Discretionary Fund earmarked for the Stern and Bauman families. Please get cash or check to the EB office, or donate online at http://ezrabessaroth.net/support-eb and choose “Stern and Bauman Family Collection”

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14
Apr
0

Israel's Population Grew Tenfold Since 1948

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Govt: Israel's Population Grew Tenfold Since 1948
Just in time for Yom Ha'atzma'ut, the Central Bureau of Statistics released data on Israel's population.

By David Lev (Israelnationalnews.com)

A total of 8,018,000 people live in the State of Israel on Independence Day 2013, the CBS said. When the state was established on the fifth of the Hebrew month of Iyar in 1948, that number was a mere 806,000. Today, there are 6,042,000 Jews (75% of the country's population) living in Israel today, along with 1,658,000 Muslim and ChristianArabs (20.7% of the population). The country also has an additional 318,000 (4%) residents classified as “other,” including non-Arab Christians and members of other religions.

Israel's population grew by 138,000 since last Yom Ha'atzma'ut, a growth rate of 1.8%. In 2011, it was announced that over 70% of the Jewish population were born in Israel, with more than half second-generation Israelis. In 1948, only 35% were “native Sabras.”

The rise of the metropolitan area has been another important development in Israel over the past decades, the CBS said. In 1948, only one city – Tel Aviv-Jaffa – hand more than 100,000 residents. Today, there are six cities with more than 200,000 residents, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa, Rishon Lezion, Ashdod, and Petah Tikvah.

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11
Apr
0

The History Channel's Six Day War Documentary

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