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October 23, 2014 / 29 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘religious’

Torah & Norman Solomon

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Having just celebrated Simchat Torah, the festival of the Torah, the question of its source and authority remains at the very center of our current religious debate. But it’s a minefield, quicksand that can consume and even destroy the best of minds. In all the years I have worked in the rabbinate I have come across many devoted, hardworking men, but very few of them have been innovative thinkers of any note. Whatever gifts they may have had as speakers or writers, they have almost all avoided tackling fundamental theological issues. Some out of fear for their jobs, others out of fear of their peers, and of course others simply had neither the inclination nor the training to question and challenge core beliefs. It may be that the demands of the rabbinate are so overwhelming that they afford insufficient time. The fact is that almost all the intellectually creative rabbis I have come across throughout the Jewish world have left the full time rabbinate, mainly for academia.

Indeed it is in academia nowadays that all the creative Orthodox Jewish thinking is taking place. One can now find Charedi academics working in Israeli universities on what hitherto were always regarded as heretical approaches to Torah. Synagogues and communities, on the other hand, are centers of conformity and socialization. They do of course fulfill a very important need. Most people come to synagogues precisely to reinforce their social identity and needs and not to be forced into the painful process of grappling with ideas of faith.

I have just read Norman Solomon’s Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith. It is an important book for anyone grappling with traditional Judaism. And it calls to mind the great Louis Jacobs controversy that rocked and soured Anglo-Jewry for so long.

Louis Jacobs was a product of traditional Yeshivot and Kollels, a Jew who adhered strictly to halacha throughout his life, a gifted teacher, a caring pastoral rabbi and, his biggest fault if you could call it a fault, a painfully honest man. He was a man of such impeccable stature and religious integrity that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe called him to give testimony at a court hearing in New York over the Rebbe’s library. In a small work, We Have Reason to Believe, he brought traditional sources to show how the idea that all of the Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, was a complex idea, with textual, historical, and philosophical problems that needed to be addressed, and indeed could be, in modern philosophical terms. He was a senior lecturer at Jews College, a pulpit rabbi and a candidate to succeed Israel Brodie as Chief Rabbi.

But appointing Chief Rabbis has always been a fraught, Machiavellian political process, as recent maneuverings perfectly illustrate. Louis Jacobs was blocked by an unholy alliance of envious, narrow-minded, and politically ambitious rabbis whose background was both anti-intellectual and fundamentalist. They needed an excuse to hound him out of contention for leadership of Anglo-Jewry, and they succeeded. The result was that he was treated immorally by the religious leadership of Anglo-Jewry to his dying day, even being denied an aliyah at his own grandson’s Bar Mitzvah under a much lauded Chief Rabbi who ought to have known better. One can think of no better example of the moral bankruptcy of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. I myself was banned at one stage from contributing to an establishment publication called Leylah because I had written a sympathetic article about him.

Norman Solomon was a distinguished rabbi in the Anglo-Jewish Orthodox United Synagogue with whom I have had intermittent contact over the years and whom I admire and respect. We share a Cardiff connection, as well as Cambridge and philosophy. Intellectually rigorous, sensitive, and modest, he served major communities with distinction before retiring to academia. First he helped establish the Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations at the Selly Oak Colleges, which put him in the forefront of interfaith activity, and then he became fellow in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a member of Wolfson College. Now, in the late stages of his career, he has tackled in public the very same issue that Louis Jacobs tried to deal with fifty years ago, but in greater depth and width.

It is a sad reflection on the current state of intellectual dishonesty and censorship in the Orthodox world that fundamentalism rules in the rabbinate. Only in academia can we find men like Marc Shapiro and Menachem Kellner, to name the best known, who are willing, from a position of committed Orthodoxy, to stand up and refuse to be deterred from examining honestly received ideas and showing how they are not simplistic clichés of belief but important, complex concepts that need more than superficial assent. Torah from Heaven stands with Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology as a seminal work that delves into the richness of our heritage to show that there is more than one way of looking at core religious ideas.

Catholicism reacted to the challenge of science in the nineteenth century by retreating behind the walls of certainty and dogma, insisting on papal infallibility. Orthodox Judaism has now adopted this mode. But I believe the easy access that modern technology and the internet gives us to the variety of texts and opinions that have existed in Judaism over thousands of years is taking the seals off the archives. The light shed will inevitably open minds and produce new approaches. The current battle over conscription in Israel gives the impression that the Charedi world in its entirety is set against secular education. But in reality, the interesting fact is that more and more Charedim are getting PhDs in Judaica nowadays, which means that new ideas are simmering within the fortress of Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy lives by practice rather than theology. I get really offended when zealots try to suggest that unless you believe a specific formulation of whatever, then you are “beyond the pale”. The Torah does not use the formulation, “You must believe,” which is a very Greek idea. Instead it posits certain fundamental assertions and leaves it up to us as to how we understand them. If God did not insist on a rigidly defined credo, why should we? If we want to retain critical, thinking, and open minds, we must offer intellectual rigor, not just religiously correct slogans. This book gives us a history of the issues and how different thinkers over the centuries have dealt with the challenges of the Torah. It is a major contribution. Thank you, Norman.

Go East

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

The anniversary of the Yom Kipur War always reminds one of Israeli fallibility, arrogance, and overconfidence, yet at the same time of its capacity to defy the odds and come back from the brink. It was another example of our bringing disaster upon ourselves and then fighting back to survive. After all, that is what the name “Israel” means in the Bible: “to struggle with man and God and survive”.

If I were to listen to the voices, Jewish and non-Jewish, that I hear in such examples as The New York Times, in The New York Review of Books, the intellectual and leftwing talking heads of Europe and the USA, or indeed popular left wing opinion, I would have a depressing sense of impending catastrophe. This week Peter Beinart, in The New York Review of Books, tells us that we Jews neither know, nor understand, nor feel the suffering of the Palestinians, whether under Hamas or the PLO. Ian S. Lustick goes on at length in a one-sided peroration typical of The New York Times that the lays the blame on Israel for making the Two State Solution irrelevant. They are not entirely wrong. But I tell you I am bloody fed up with people lumping all Israelis, all Jews together in their simplistic apportioning of blame, seeing things in black and white rather than in greys. Palestinians are good victims. Israelis are bad oppressors. In fact, both are both. That’s what humans are, a mixture of good and bad.

Some Israelis, some Jews are indeed intolerable racists. It is as true as is the fact that in South Africa under Apartheid there were Jews who acquiesced, who remained silent and failed their moral duty. But it is equally true that many Jews fought long and hard and at great cost to themselves, to oppose Apartheid and to promote freedom for the black population. That the ANC finally triumphed has not replaced immorality with morality, discrimination with equality. Sadly, too often those who suffer respond not by continuing the drive towards greater freedom but by grabbing all they can for themselves. This is the usual consequence of most struggles for freedom. Similarly, in Zimbabwe the relatively benign but overtly racial regime of Ian Smith was replaced by the much more evil and murderous regime of black Mugabe. Good fighters for freedom turn into very bad governors of countries. But that is the price of the struggle. And politics is dirty and messy everywhere.

The role of government is to protect its citizens and the vision of its founders. Israel was created as a state with a Jewish heritage, just as much as Muslim states were established to preserve and propagate Muslim heritage. Most of us would like to see both as tolerant and democratic societies. Israel is imperfect indeed, but it is our homeland. If we care for it we should fight to protect it and to improve it, not to undermine it. We should focus just as much on those who are working hard on reconciliation, on doing good, not just on the bad, on Syrians treated in Israeli hospitals, on Israel providing for Gaza what Egypt is not. But don’t expect this from the anti-Israel amen chorus.

So how are we expected to relate to a dysfunctional Middle East that is constantly stirred up against us by a distorted Western mentality? Surely not by capitulating to its mental diseases. I suggest we try to ignore its pathologies as best we can. But I must stress, I do not advocate cutting ourselves off from the Muslim world. The Middle East is not the only Muslim location. I do not think the divide between Judaism and Islam is either inevitable or healthy. We have far more in common with each other than we do with Western religions. To both of us, religion is not a series of theological propositions but a way of life. However if we want to heal the breach we must look further east.

It always surprises Jews to learn that the Muslims of the Far East, from India to Indonesia, from Cambodia to China, see the Arab jihadis of the Middle East in much the same way that non-Orthodox Jews view Charedim. They regard the Salafists and the Wahhabis as over the top extremists. It’s true in both cases that guilt often leads them to support the pious at arm’s length. The Far East also has its extreme and violent Islamic movements and terrorists, but the general mood of Islam is far more benign the further you get from the Middle East. It is more tolerant, less anti-West, and less fixated on blaming everyone else, especially the Jews, for their own ills. Yes, you can quote me that nasty former Malayan premier Mahathir bin Mohamad, who blamed the Jews for everything. But, thank goodness, he was not typical. I believe Israel should reduce its links with Europe with is ghastly legacy and history. It should be cultivating relations and economic involvements with India, China, Korea, and other emerging powers out in the Far East.

Daniel Goldhagen, the controversial and outspoken American historian who wrote Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, has stirred things up with his latest book about Western anti-Semitism, The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism. Anthony Julius wrote a dismissive review in the Wall Street Journal accusing Goldhagen of sloppy research and unreliable statistics, even if he agrees with the core of his thesis. But even if Goldhagen exaggerates when he says 200 million Europeans compare Israelis to Nazis, let us reduce it by half. The fact is that huge swathes of opinion in Europe and the USA are venomously opposed to Israel’s existence on principle. So who is Israel to rely on? We knew Europe would never go to war to defend the Jews. Now we have seen all too clearly that the USA cannot be relied upon to fight. It is war weary. Israel must defend it itself as best it can, both socially and militarily. It is time to look for friends elsewhere.

In addition, I believe Judaism has more in common with and is more appreciated by the religion and mysticism of the East than of the West. The West is fixated on pain, suffering, guilt, and negativity. The East has much more positive religious energy. We have been identified with the Western religious tradition for too long. We have adopted too much of this guilt and pain. We could well redress the balance. It is time to think about a new alliance, a new love affair, with the Far East for Israel and Jews in general. I only hope our present leaders, secular and religious, will not be as myopic as those of the past.

France: “Secularism Charter” in Every School

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

Originally published at Gatestone Institute.

“Nothing could be worse than posting a secularism charter on the wall and then the students see around them that what actually happens in school life is the exact opposite of what we tell them.” — Philippe Tournier, Secretary General, French Teachers Union.

The French government has announced a plan to post a “secularism charter” in all public schools in France by the end of September.

The document — which is to appear in a prominent location in all of the 55,000 public schools in France — would serve to remind students and teachers of a list of secular principles underpinning the separation of mosque and state.

Although the initiative has enjoyed a generally positive reception, many observers are saying they doubt the Socialist government of French President François Hollande will have the political willpower actually to enforce secular principles in French schools — with or without a charter.

This skepticism stems from the fact that Muslim children constitute an increasingly large proportion of the 10 million students in the French public school system — and because Muslim parents make up an increasingly important voting bloc in French politics. Muslims, in fact, cast the deciding vote that thrust Hollande into the Elysée Palace in May 2012.

French Education Minister Vincent Peillon, who announced the plan in an interview with the French daily newspaper L’Est Républicain on August 26, said, “Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but not to dispute lessons or to skip classes [for religious reasons]. The charter will be a reminder of [secular] principles. It will be posted in all schools in late September. The law provides for a moral and civic education that promotes freedom from judgment, the capacity to emancipate, and rights and duties. I want to see the return of those values of the [French] Republic in schools in 2013.”

Although the final content of the charter will not be made public until the middle of September, a draft of the list which contains a total of 17 paragraphs has been circulating since July 11.

The first section of the draft list is entitled “The Republic is Secular,” and consists of six rather straightforward paragraphs that mostly echo the French Constitution. Paragraph 2 of the draft, for example, states that, “France is a republic that is indivisible, secular, democratic and social. It ensures equality before the law, on the whole of its territory, for all citizens. It respects all creeds.”

According to Paragraph 3, “The secular Republic is based upon the separation of religion and state. The state is neutral with regard to religious or spiritual beliefs. There is no state religion.” Paragraph 4 states that “Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience for all. Everyone is free to believe or not to believe. It allows the free expression of his beliefs, respecting those of others within the limits of public order.” And so on.

The second section of the list, entitled “The School is Secular,” changes tack by directly confronting Muslim students who take to disrupting classes whenever they do not agree with their teachers on certain subjects.

Paragraph 14 states: “Lessons are secular. To ensure that students are as objectively open as possible to the diversity of worldviews as well as to the extent and accuracy of knowledge, no subject is a priori excluded from scientific and educational inquiry.”

According to Paragraph 15, “No student may invoke religious or political convictions to challenge and/or to prevent a teacher from teaching certain parts of the curriculum.” Paragraph 16 states that “the wearing of conspicuous symbols or dress by pupils as relates to their religious affiliation is prohibited in public schools.”

The draft charter also states that “the secular school offers students the conditions to forge their own personality, exercise their free will and learn about citizenship. It protects them from proselytizing and from any pressure that prevents them from making their own choices.”

Reactions to the announcement have been mixed, with some questioning if or how the measure will be enforced.

The Secretary General of the French Teachers Union, Philippe Tournier, told Radio Europe 1 that while he welcomed the secularism charter in principle, he worried about its implementation. “The intentions are quite positive, but the essential thing still remains: putting into force what [the charter] affirms,” he said. “Nothing could be worse than posting a secularism charter on the wall, and then the students see around them that what actually happens in school life is the exact opposite of what we tell them.”

Abusing Clout

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

There is an article in the  New York Times that discusses the clout Chasidim in America have achieved. And it does not paint a flattering picture. Some might say that this is just typical New York Times bashing of religious Jews. But I’m not so sure it is. Let us examine the issue.

Chasidim do have clout. There is no question about it. How did they get so much clout? Prior to the Holocaust, Chasidim in America barely existed as an identifiable entity.  But they grew exponentially into huge numbers since the Holocaust. Chasidim tend to get married early (in some cases both bride and groom are in their teens) and have many children. A family of ten or more children is not uncommon. As a result, now over sixty years later they are a force to be reckoned with.

Although I have argued that – despite their rate of growth –  their current numbers do not necessarily predict their future dominance as a culture in Judaism… their numbers are very definitely huge as is their current influence in government. This is mostly seen in the power of their vote. If their rabbinic leadership tells them to vote for a certain candidate, they tend to do so in large numbers without question and without needing to know what that candidate stands for. This gives Chasidim as a group out-sized political power!

This power does not go to waste. This community uses it to their full advantage. When they make a request to a government official, he pays attention. And often sees to it that the request is granted.

I have no problem with using one’s clout to get things done for your community. There is nothing wrong with petitioning your government for your cause. It is no different than any group lobbying for their particular agenda. In that sense Chasidim are no different than – say – the gun lobby. It is the right of every American citizen – no less Chasidic citizens – to petition their government.

The question arises when petitioning for rights becomes pressuring for rights.  Requests then turn into demands with unspoken threats of political defeat in the next election if those demands aren’t met. Although it may be legal to do that – it can easily be interpreted as a form of political extortion to get what they want  – sometimes at the expense of others.That can only result in resentment at best… and at worst create (or expose latent) anti-Semitism.

First let me say that I view it unethical to vote for a candidate without knowing what he stands for just because you were told to do so by a rabbinic leader. I understand why they do this. It is obvious. It gives them an extraordinary amount of power over elected officials.  But one ought to vote for a candidate because of believing what he stands for – not because it will give your group collective power over him.

This is not good citizenship. And it makes religious looking Jews look bad. How does this affect the image of religious Jews in the world? Does this result in a positive image of Chasidim – or a negative one? What about the rest of Orthodox Jewry? Will we all be judged the way?

And how necessary are those demands? Are they Halachic or cultural? Let us look at some examples (described in the Times article) of achievements their clout has brought them.

How important is it for Chasidic women  to demand a female lifeguard at their beaches that are apparently sex segregated? Although I understand their request – it is a not a Halachic requirement to have a female lifeguard.  Is it worth exercising the community’s clout to get one?

I also do not understand why they insist on well water for their Pesach Matzos. They apparently object to chlorination. What does chlorine have to do with Chametz? It is not a leavening agent. It is a poison which if used in small quantities kills bacteria and has no harmful effects on human beings.

Separate – sex segregated public buses are now the norm in their neighborhood. Men in the front and women in the back. That is no doubt illegal. But since they do it voluntarily, no one bothers them. Is that so necessary? I know Chasidim consider separate seating on a bus to be more modest. But is violating the law the right thing to do if it isn’t a Halachic necessity – even if no one bothers them about it?

Kosher Slaughter Ban Shows Poland Has a Jewish Problem

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

The Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, has a Jewish problem.

In a painful affront to the Jewish community, it recently defeated a government initiative to reinstate the legality of kosher slaughter of animals. This prompted Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, to threaten resignation and triggered sharp criticism of the Sejm from Jewish communities in Poland and around the world.

What happens in Poland regarding Jews has special significance because of the Holocaust. More than 90 percent of the country’s three and a half million Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation. Poland began legislating against kosher slaughter in 1936, and once the Germans occupied the country three years later, the practice was banned entirely.

Since the fall of the communist regime in 1989, however, Jewish life in Poland has undergone a remarkable, and previously unimaginable, renaissance. Full recognition of the rights of Jews to practice their faith – including kosher slaughter – was enshrined in an agreement the government signed with the Jewish community in 2004.

Indeed, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, addressing an overflow crowd at the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum in Washington several weeks ago, declared it was his country’s responsibility to ensure “that today’s Jewish community in Poland is safe, welcome and respected.”

He honored Poland’s Jewish community “not just for how it died, but for how it lives, and how it is coming back to life.”

When legislation was adopted a few years ago mandating the use of electronic stunning equipment before an animal is killed – a practice prohibited under Jewish law –the Jewish community was granted an administrative exemption. In January, however, a court ruled the exemption unconstitutional. Alleged violations of animal rights trumped age-old Jewish religious practice.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government framed legislation to override the court decision. What should have been a fairly easy corrective measure was instead defeated on July 12 by a vote of 222 to 178, leaving in place the judicial ban.

Thirty-eight Sejm members representing Tusk’s ruling Civic Platform party joined with the opposition in voting to outlaw ritual slaughter. In Poland, this was viewed as a major victory for animal rights advocates, as their views prevailed against the nation’s farmers and meatpackers, who had developed a lively business exporting kosher and halal meat to Israel and Muslim countries.

Jews, however, see matters quite differently. From their perspective, the Sejm’s action stigmatizing kosher slaughter as inhumane blatantly contradicts Foreign Minister Sikorski’s pledge to make Jews “safe, welcome and respected.” They point out that kosher slaughter, whereby the animal is rendered immediately unconscious by severing the carotid artery, is humane, and that the continued legality of hunting in Poland, which results in far greater and more indiscriminate pain to animals, suggests there may in fact be another, unstated reason for outlawing kosher slaughter: anti-Semitism.

In the wake of the Sejm vote, pejorative comments about Jews in some of the Polish media and online give some credence to these fears.

Unfortunately, it is not an isolated incident. The situation for European Jews looks even grimmer in a broader context. Just a few months ago, a similar scenario unfolded in Germany when a court banned ritual circumcision, another fundamental element of the Jewish religion, on the grounds that it mutilated children without their consent. There, too, anti-Semitic motivation was not hard to discern in certain quarters amid the talk about physiological and psychological harm.

Fortunately, Chancellor Angela Merkel navigated a bill through the German parliament overruling the court and reestablishing the religious freedom of Jews to continue an age-old tradition of their faith. Whether Poland will successfully follow her example and push through a law guaranteeing the right to kosher slaughter remains to be seen.

Such attacks on Jewish religious practice, in fact, constitute just one front in a wider struggle over the future of Jewish life in Europe. Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise, increasing by 30 percent between 2011 and 2012. In France, there was an astounding 58 percent jump over that same period, including the targeted murder last year of four Jews, three of them small children, in Toulouse.

Vocally anti-Semitic political parties are represented in the Greek and Hungarian parliaments and are gaining power on the local and regional levels in other countries. Public opinion polls show alarmingly high levels of anti-Semitic attitudes. Demonization of Israel in the media and among some intelligentsia is often indistinguishable from Jew-baiting. No wonder that opinion surveys point to a striking number of European Jews contemplating emigration.

Haredi Settlers Push Back: Rebbe’s Dad Was Pro-Settlements

Monday, August 12th, 2013

In response to the Sunday report about the unrestrained attack by the visiting Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe of Borough Park (Grand Rebbe Attacks Settlers, Compares Israeli Media to Nazis), a local movement of pro-settlements Haredim known as Halamish (acronym for Haredim for Judea and Samaria) published considerably different statements on the same issues by Rabbi Halberstam’s father, the late Grand Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the First Klausenburger Rebbe and the author of “Shefa Chayim” and “Divrei Yatsiv.”

The Klausenburger dynasty was founded by the late Rabbi Halberstam in 1927, when he became the Rav of Klausenburg, capital city of Transylvania, Rumania. The Klausenburger Rebbe was the great-grandson of Rabbi Chaim of Sanz, founder of the Sanz Chasidic dynasty.

According to Kikar Hashabbat, which quotes from the Halamish messsage citing what the late Rebbe has said in 1976 about settling Eretz Israel:

“When we look at the map today we are ashamed that, because of our numerous sins, Eretz Israel looks so shriveled, compared with the black, threatening balloon. And when you need to write ‘Jerusalem’ on the map, the word ends up somewhere abroad and you’re unable to write ‘Jerusalem’ within the map. And they want to take that, too, away from us, that, too, they won’t have the charity to give the Jews, that, too, they wish to divide, God forbid, may God wipe out the names of the wicked and the terrorists with whom Jews are collaborating…”

In fact, when it came to comparisons with the Third Reich, it appears the first Klausenburger Rebbe had his priorities straight: “There are Jews, may we be spared this, who join up with the Arabs, who are worse than the cursed Nazis,” he said.

In 1984, according to Halamish, the Klausenburger Rebbe made another WW2 comparison: “To our chagrin, there are Jews who join up with the terrorists and try to appease them all the time, and they hate the Jewish faith, especially the press and the media who curse the Jews and glorify the haters of Jews.”

The Rebbe was an enthusiastic supporter of the Haredi town of Imanuel, established in 1983 in Samaria. It was growing and flourishing initially, but the Oslo accords discouraged new investors and the town declined to only a few thousand residents today.

But in 1984, the Rebbe said proudly, during a visit to the Haredi town: “Praise and thanks to Hashem Yisborach that I merited to participate with a group of Jews in the prominent city in Israel, Immanuel, and even though there are some who try to discourage the founders of the city, saying it’s dangerous to live in it because of its vicinity to Arab settlements—but according to us this only means that because there’s the possibility of danger involved, the reward for this mitzvah would be greater in the world to come.”

And then, as if in a direct rebuke to his son, who actually said last week that the National Religious teach that “for the sake of settling Eretz Israel we should uproot all the 613 mitzvahs of the Torah,” the first Klausenburger Rebbe said:

“The mitzvah of settling Eretz Israel is among the biggest mitzvahs… and he who bought a parcel in Eretz Israel it’s as if he bought a share in the world to come.”

On a personal note: my original article, Sunday, received mostly supportive comments, but there were a few who accused me of promoting hatred against Haredim. And, of course, there were the usual calls to get over my apparent penchant for Sinas Chinam-baseless hatred, for which, according to our sages, the second temple was destroyed.

I must say that, in my opinion, those very calls for inhibiting an honest discussion of our values as religious Jews, under the bizarre guise that any reporting of the truth might somehow add to hatred, is in itself the most blatant expression of baseless hatred to the value of Truth.

The language Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe of Borough Park, used in his speech in Beit Shemesh, was violent, brutal, uncivilized and rife with self pity. Reflecting the worst in modern haredi punditry, it accused religious Jews of the worst possible motives–that their goal is to eradicate Torah, for heaven’s sake–and compared to Nazis the non-religious Jewish journalists critical of the Haredi society in Israel. That was not civilized language, and the notion that an inspired Chassidic leader who influences many Jews would use this language is saddening and, frankly, scary.

I come from a family of Gur Chassidim, I wrote a book about a great Rebbe and I davened many years with Chassidim. I never imagined this kind of speech coming from a Rebbe. I don’t know the man, I don’t wish him any harm, God forbid, but as a lover of Chassidism and Chassidic Jews, I had to voice my personal objection.

When Good Children Go OTD

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

The problem seems to be far worse than anyone thinks. We may even be at an epidemic level. Everywhere I turn these days it seems, I find a family where at least one child has gone OTD (Off the Derech–away from the religious path). Or at least does not follow the Hashkafic path laid out by their parents.

Many of them are all from fine families. Exemplars of great parenting. Nothing dysfunctional about them. The parents have many children all the rest of which are the obvious results child rearing by 2 great parents. Most of their children do fine in the Hashkafic milieu in which they were raised and in which they live. And yet it seem to be increasingly the case that at least one child has no interest in towing the family religious line.

In the families that I know about it seems the problems tend to begin in mid to late elementary school or early high school.

The question is why is this happening? What is it that is driving this OTD phenomenon in good families? It is very understandable when this happens in dysfunctional families where physical or mental abuse exists either between parents; between a parent and child; or both. It does not take rocket science to see why a child associates their strife their parent’s lifestyle. If they are a religious family, then religion is associated with that strife.

But what about the good families with good children where one of them does not want to have anything to do with their family’s religious way of life? Unfortunately I know of far too many situations like these. Hashkafos don’t seem to matter that much. I know families with an OTD child that are very right wing, moderate Charedi, and right wing Modern Orthodox. None of them are so strict as to warrant the kind of rebellion they have experienced from at least one child.

I have no real explanation. But I suspect it has something to do with the current pressure that schools and thereby parents put on their children to excel in their religiosity, Limudei Kodesh or Limudei Chol. I am constantly hearing about how schools of all Hashkafos are ‘rasining’ their standards. That is impacted negatively by the times in which we live. By that I mean the great distractions that now exists that did not exist in the past. Distractions that expose children to a much easier lifestyle than their parents insist upon. Distractions that take away from their study time. Distractions that cause them to question matters of faith. These are distractions that those of us over the age of 30 never had when we were growing up.

The internet, its ease of use and availability, and the ability to easily hide one’s involvement with it puts pressure on young people now – as never before. No matter how much we try to discourage it, limit it, or ban it, it is so pervasive that it is impossible to avoid the influence it has on children. Children can access anything they want as quickly as they can delete it from a screen. A child now has an unprecedented and unfettered window to the entire world. A little curiosity about a taboo subject will beget websites and images that can easily pull a child away from their parents’ influences. It is amazing that there aren’t even more OTD children than there are.

Coupled with this is the increased pressure put upon children in our day to be more religious and be better students than ever before.

The pressure to excel and adopt ever increasing Churmos into our lives has become so ingrained that not conform to these new standards is unacceptable.For example violating a Chumra is as painful to a family as violating a Halacha. I know one family that feels great pain that a child now uses non Chalav Yisroel products. I hasten to add that they are a very loving family – accepting of that child and allowing her to bring non Chalav Yisroel products into the home and use them freely. But it still pains them internally.

And how can any self respecting parent not want their child to excel in school? So with every increase in the amount of material to be mastered, there is a parental motive to see to it that their child measures up. Whether it is the Charedi standard of Limudei Kodesh or the MO academic standard. And in many cases – both.

If you combine the two phenomenon of increased pressure (whether religious or in the level of study)in the home and in school with the ubiquity of the internet – I think one can understand why the OTD phenomenon even in good homes might be near epidemic levels.

I would add that the fact that as the religious population increases, so too do the number of children going OTD – even if the percentages may be the same. But if I had to guess the percentages have increases too and not only the numbers.

I don’t know how to solve any of these problems. But I do have a few thoughts about it. First we ought to be aware of the problems and to recognize that we live in unprecedented times. One cannot for example ignore the internet. Nor can it be successfully banned. But one should do the best they can to set up parental controls, rules, and guidelines about its use. And avoid giving very young children hand held devices.

Of course the most important factor is to love our children unconditionally. Even – and perhaps especially – if they are at risk or OTD. They must know that they will always be loved; part of the family; and welcomed in the homes. Even if they are Mechalel Shabbos, and eat Treif. A bare headed son or daughter whose modesty does not measure up to family or community standards must be accepted. No matter what others in your community think! That may not bring them back. But it will for sure not push them away should they ever want to come back.

Another much harder thing to accomplish is to change the current penchant of religious schools to demand ever increasing religious standards for – not only their students but their parents.

The same thing is to be said with the ever increasing academic standards; or Torah study standards. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be top schools in an area of study in either Limudei Kodesh or Limudei Chol. But they should be special schools reserved for the very best, brightest and most highly motivated students among us. Putting a child that does not have those qualifications into schools like those will almost certainly set up them up for failure. And failure should never be an option.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/blogs/haemtza/when-good-children-go-otd/2013/08/08/

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