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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Ami Magazine’

Ami Magazine Forcing Gilgulim Down our Throats

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Ami Magazine published an article by Sara Yocheved Rigler that would have many of our Geonim and Rishonim turning over in their graves. In a nutshell, the article describes strange phenomena such as fear of Nazi related imagery or fear of situations that might be similar to Holocaust experiences. The people experiencing these things are not able to explain why they have these fears.

According to the article, these are manifestations of reincarnated souls from the Holocaust. That is the only explanation given for these oddities (which are not very odd at all). In fact, the article goes so far as to suggest that non-Jews are also reincarnated with Jewish souls from the Holocaust and this is what draws them toward conversion. Of course this is problematic because those who believe in reincarnation and recycling of souls also believe that souls only transmigrate from Jew to Jew and non-Jews are given new souls with each birth. This is waved away by a rabbi quoted in the article who says if you wanted to be a non-Jew in a previous life you come back as a non-Jew.

I have three basic issues with this article.

1. It is disingenuous because it uses anecdotes from people who do not necessarily agree with the article as support for the article’s ideas. For example, Rabbi Berel Wein is quoted at the beginning of the article. He related that the Ponevezher Rav once said to a group of young couples in Miami that their job was to repopulate the world with Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust. That is a common Jewish sentiment from the mid-20th century. The problem is that it is being used as some sort of support for the idea that Jews born in America are reincarnations of people who perished in the Holocaust. He said nothing of the sort. He meant nothing of the sort. There is simply no reason to think he did.

Another similar example is using R’ Lau’s recollection of the Holocaust. He famously said that experiencing the Holocaust as a child left him with three strong memories. Dogs, boots, and trains. This is somehow used as support for the idea that someone who is afraid of boots is reincarnated from someone who perished in the Holocaust.

Neither of those stories has anything to do with reincarnation. But it gives the article “credence” to toss a few familiar names into the article to prove irrelevant, agreed upon points.

2. Stay away from the Holocaust. Trying to explain Holocaust deaths as tikkun and a way of cleansing a soul is offensive. We don’t know why people die. We don’t even know if there is always a reason that people die. To try to make death feel better because it’s part of a giant soul reincarnation cleansing plan is no better than saying they died because of their sins. It’s ugly.

But more importantly, it demonstrates that the real reason reincarnation is being discussed in this context is to make us feel better. We don’t understand death and destruction so we explain it with reincarnation. We don’t understand how millions could die for no reason so we explain it with reincarnation. We can’t explain a fear of showers or boots so it must be reincarnated souls from the Holocaust. There might be better answers to these questions. But the article does not explore them. Using the emotional appeal of the Holocaust to draw us into a reincarnation narrative is inappropriate.

3. Most importantly, reincarnation is a very controversial subject in Judaism. It’s not mentioned in Tanach. It’s not mentioned in the Talmud or Medrash. It’s rejected by most of the Geonim. It is rejected or ignored by many of the mainstream Rishonim. It serves no theological purpose other than to explain things that might be able to be explained in another way.

The article jumps right into reincarnation without a moment’s consideration of the very prominent Torah authority figures that reject reincarnation. This is at worst a lie and at best ignorance. But either way it is incomplete. Gilgul is not a necessary belief in orthodox Judaism. In fact, it might be worst to believe in it than not to believe in it. Why are we normalizing this kind of thing? Why are we discarding the valid opinions that don’t hold of gilgul? Why is it okay to just side with the Arizal on everything and forget about everyone else?

I don’t need to make the complete case against gilgul here. But I will make a couple of points.

The Ancient Greeks believed in reincarnation. We did not. We knew their beliefs and we rejected them in the time of Chazal. It’s impossible to say that Jews did not talk about reincarnation because they just didn’t know that it could exist. It was known and it was not accepted. It began to be accepted by a select few Rishonim after being rejected by the two most prominent early Rishonim that discuss Hashkafa, Rambam and Rabbi Judah HaLevi. The one prominent Rishon who does mention gilgul is Ramban and he does so at the expense of an interpretation on the verse that is in Chazal. In other words, they had a different explanation for the verse. The interpretation of Ramban contradicts Chazal.

In the 15th and 16th century there was a renewed interest in this sort of thing. Dybbuks also became more popular in this period. (See: Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism ) But it’s no fait accompli that gilguls and dybbuks are part of Judaism. We have no idea if it’s true and our early sources say that it’s not.

It’s not a positive development that these beliefs have gone mainstream. They are too easy to reject and cast aspersion on the more vital parts of Judaism. We don’t need this stuff in Judaism and it doesn’t improve our lives. Why are we so willing and eager to embrace it in our publications without question? This is my little protest. Don’t force these beliefs down our throats. It’s not integral to Judaism.

(Note: Reincarnation at the times of Messiah has nothing to do with this discussion.)

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Never Mind Condemnations by Torah Sages, College Is Not ‘Traif’

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

“Certainly, there is an absolute condemnation of any sort of college from most Gedolim.” That is how the cover article in last week’s Ami Magazine was punctuated.  That article was about the dangers to one’s spiritual health of attending college.

Ironically the article itself was very fair about the issue.  Various rabbis who are either directly or indirectly involved with colleges and universities that have significant Orthodox Jewish populations were interviewed.  There was not a single comment indicative of any Issur on attending college.  Instead it seems to be a generally fair analysis of the situation as it exists without any real comment – pro or con about attending college (with the obvious exception of that statement in there final paragraph).

As to the substance of that article – there seemed to be a consensus that there are differences between colleges and universities with respect to retaining observance by Orthodox students.  As secular colleges go, commuter colleges are the way to go.  A commuter college like Brooklyn College that has a large percentage of Orthodox students is considered the safest type of college. Commuter colleges have no campus life to speak of.  Students attend classes and go home. Brooklyn College has the added advantage of having so many Orthodox Jews in attendance and being located in Flatbush -a very Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.

If one opts for a university away from home that entails living in a dorm with its attendant a campus life – there too there are differences. Although generally speaking that is a very dangerous situation to put a child into, there are some notable exceptions. Among the best of them is the University of Pennsylvania (referred to as ‘ Penn’ by  most people ) which is an ivy league college.

Penn is considered a fairly safe environment for Orthodox students. Students there have an on campus Orthodox environment to live in.  It appears that very few students go OTD there. Somewhat surprisingly the article concludes that the best place to attend college is a place like Touro or Yeshiva University– where the Beis HaMedrash is never very far from the classroom.  I could not agree more with that.

The truth is that there was really very little of substance I disagreed with in that article. It is almost as if the Ami editorial staff didn’t believe in their own anti college hype. But that they just had to put in a condemnation of college in order to maintain their Charedi credentials.

But I have to challenge the very premise that most Gedolim condemn college. Do they? That statement flies in the face that Yeshivos like Ner Israel. Torah VoDaath, Chafetz Chaim, and Chaim Berlinhave a history of most of their students attending college with the help of the Yeshivos themselves. Those Yeshivos facilitate their students’ attendance by providing Yeshiva “credits” that can be used to fulfill some of the elective requirements.

And let us not forget the ill-fated attempt by Rav Hutner and Reb Shraga Feivel to actually create their own college! It may have been stopped by Rav Aharon Kotler. But is shows that at least these two Gedolim did not only did not condemn it they wanted to actually create their own college!

But all that is beside the point I wish to make here. A sub-theme of this article is the question of Modern Orthodox dropouts. Left pretty much unsaid is the fact that the vast majority of Jewish university students are from Modern Orthodox homes. In my view there is a connection to the MO dropout problem and attending a college that has does not have any kind of Orthodox presence. Which brings me back to my post on that subject.

In that post Rabbi Steven Pruzansky quoted a shocking and yet unsubstantiated statistic. He claimed that 50% of the of MO high schools students go OTD within 2 years of their graduation. I understand and even agree with the point he was trying to make. But he was grossly in error in the way he tried to make it.

When someone quotes an outrageous statistic like that, he better be able to back it up. The fact that he just threw it out a number from a survey that he did not even see just to make his point actually undermines it. His point was lost – virtually buried by the strong criticism he received by using a questionable statistic to make it.

The fact that he used an unsubstantiated and shocking statistic does not mitigate the problem. As I said in my earlier post, all segments of Orthodox Judaism has OTD problems. And there are different reasons why members of each segment goes OTD although some reasons overlap. Point being that the problem exists in large numbers in all segments.

That said, the OTD problems that are specific to Modern Orthodoxy are real and should not be glossed over. Rabbi Pruznski’s point should not be overlooked just because of the foolish use of a questionable statistic.

I think it is safe to say that the 50% figure is ridiculously high. The real dropout rate is probably much lower. Does that mean we should ignore the problem? I don’t think so. We ought to not get hung up on statistics.

Unless someone actually believes that Modern Orthodoxy does not have an OTD problem at all, we ought to take what Rabbi Pruzansky’s suggests seriously. While his reasons are not the only ones or perhaps not even the primary ones – I do believe his observations are valid. I strongly believe that the  “Lite” factor a significant contributor to why a child will go OTD.

Rabbi Dovid Landesman who was a long time principal of an MO high school in Los Angeleshas noted that it isn’t so much that kids go Off the Derech. It is more that they were never ON the Derech in the first place! What does that mean? I think it means the lack of priority given to observant Judaism in the home by parents.

If  parents do not treat their Yiddishkeit as a priority their children won’t either. If a parent prioritizes things other than his Judaism, while keeping his observances in Judaism passive the child will very likely do the same thing. The only difference will be in what the child will value. It may not be what the parent values, but it may not be their Judaism either.

When a child like that goes off to an ‘away from home’ college with its attendant social subculture which is anathema to Judaism –  it is not all that unlikely that his observance will be willingly compromised if not altogether dropped by the social pressure there – with little if any guilt attached.

Let’s be honest. Although it exists in both communities, being Lite in one’s observance is more indigenous in a community that is immersed in the general culture than it is among one that isolates itself from it.

The fact that organizations like the OU and people like those rabbis interviewed for the Ami Article (e.g. Rabbis Steven Burg, Jonathan Shulman, David Felsenthal, and Reuven Boshneck) are actively involved in trying to create a religious environment on college campuses is indicative of that. These are “In-reach” rabbis, not “outreach” rabbis. They work hard and see their roles as essential for these students – who are mostly MO – to retain their observance.

That said – as I point out many times – there are always exceptions. There are kids form serious MO homes that go OTD and kids from Lite homes that become very committed to their Judaism. And the fact is that the Charedi world has their own OTD problems. As does the Chardal world in Israel as illustrated in Wednesday’s post.

But please let us not lose sight of the fact that there is a dropout problem in the MO world caused by problems which are unique to it. We ignore it at our own peril.

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Is This Man a Charedi Hater?

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

In its most recent edition, Ami Magazine has accused Professor Samuel Heilman – a distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of hating Charedim. I am all too familiar with accusations like this as I am often accused of being a Charedi hater myself. But the truth is that neither I nor Professor Heilman are such a thing.

Professor Heilman was interviewed for the article by Yossi Krausz and despite a fairly peasant encounter where no animus was shown towards anyone Charedi the conclusion was that Professor Heilman nonetheless still hates Charedim.

Mr. Krausz bases that accusation on the fact in his many books and articles on the subject Professor Heilman makes note of the problems in the Charedi world and attempts to explain them from a sociological perspective that is unflattering to them.

But as an expert in the field he certainly has a right to analyze them in ways that he believes to be accurate. Does that make him a Charedi hater – as the blurb on the front page of the magazine would have you believe?

I don’t think so. In fact it is completely unfair to characterize him that way. Professor Heilman is an Orthodox Jew. He is observant of the Mitzvos and is even Koveah Itim – setting aside time daily to learn Torah. What he has done is study the behavior of certain segments of Jewry and drawn conclusions as to why they behave in a certain way and sometimes cause a Chilul HaShem.

The fact is that there are such Jews among Charedim – as there are among all segments of Jewry. There are bad Jews everywhere that make us all look bad. Charedim cannot be left out of the equation just because they claim to be more religious than any other segment. The fact is that the more religious they claim to be the greater the stain of sin is seen upon them.

Whether that stain is in cheating on your taxes, or laundering money, or protecting sex abusers or any other evil – when a Charedi Jew does it, the negative statement made by them is magnified. So indeed they deserve more scrutiny and greater criticism. The damage to the reputation of the Jewish people by the most visibly religious among us is much greater and so too is the Chilul HaShem.

Professor Heilman has suggested sociological explanations for such behavior based on his studies and analyses – using his professional expertise in doing so. That does not make him a Charedi hater. It makes him an honest evaluator of the people he studies.

Even if he errs occasionally in his perceptions and assessments, that too does not make him a hater. Everybody is entitled to be wrong once in a while. That does not mean he hates anyone.

Does he have biases when he makes these evaluations? I’m sure he does. We all bring our biases into anything we say and do, including in the case of Professor Heilman – a sociological analyses of a group of people. But as an acknowledged expert in the field, his views should be valued far more than any lay person’s evaluation. And he should certainly not be accused of being a hater… even if it can be pointed out that he erred in some of those evaluations.

This is what Ami did. They took some of his statements and showed where he was wrong. A mistranslation here – a misreading there. Over reliance on others who weren’t as qualified as he is in studying and evaluating the group. But you can’t dismiss the totality of his work and claim an anti Charedi bias when the facts often speak for themselves. One need not go any further than this blog to see multiple instances of the kinds of problems cited by Professor Heilman in his books… and explanations that run the same way in many cases.

Just to cite one example the article makes mention of the dual way that the Chasidic community relates to their own people and outsiders. They point to a misreading of an ad that promises a 3 million dollar distribution of funds from a Pesach campaign to the poor of Williamsburg while the English translation says it is less than half that amount. Ami points out an error in interpreting the Yiddish and when examined closely the sign reads exactly the same way in both languages.

While that may have been a particular error in that case, I have personally experienced such duality in that neighborhood. One may recall my mentioning in a previous post about reading a sign on the door of a clothing shop in Wiliamsburg’s shopping district on Lee street that said “Closed” in English and “Open” in Yiddish! The duality is there –even if the particular example used by Professor Heilman was mistaken.

I understand the umbrage taken by Charedim at Professor Heilman’s statements. No one likes to be criticized, especially when some of the criticisms are seen as inaccurate. But if they would look in the mirror they might just see a bit of what Professor Heilman saw. These are things which are obvious to everyone but themselves. There is a lot of good about the Charedi world of places like Williamsburg. But it is not all good.

I’m not saying that Professor Heilman is always right. But he isn’t always wrong either. When someone his stature of points out some problems, instead of being so defensive they ought to take note of them and try to fix them. Certainly calling him a Charedi hater solves nothing.

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