Rabbi Yechezkel Fox was the heir-apparent to his father’s expanding kosher empire. But that path remained forever the road not taken. Instead, his quiet fishing expeditions and leisurely walks through the British countryside left his mind free to ponder the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. One day he told his traditional parents he was going to Israel to study in yeshiva. Like so many others, they thought he had gone mad.
He would spend the rest of his life pursuing his passion for learning Torah, teaching others and inspiring them to return to the traditions of their people.
Read my tribute here.
In his letter of resignation to the Superintendent of Westhill Central School District in Syracuse, New York, vetern teacher Gerald Conti describes a litany of problems arising from the unwillingness of administrators to defend educational values against the relentless pressure of ideology and political correctness. But the problem does not begin with administrators; it begins with parents, parents with egos so utterly dependent on the perception of success that they prefer to cripple their children for life rather than hold them accountable for living up to standards that will prepare them for genuinely successful lives and careers.
It is difficult to fathom the lengths to which people will go to tear down educators and their institutions when, by doing so, they can deflect from themselves responsibility for their children’s poor performance, attitudes, or behaviors. No form of malicious gossip, character assassination, or outright slander is taboo, even from individuals occupying the highest levels of communal leadership.
History offers tragic examples of the damage inflicted on individuals and whole communities through irresponsible speech. Innuendo, exaggeration, and outright lies, repeated often enough, seep into the consciousness of even the most well-intentioned people, until the damage eventually becomes irreversible.
Read the whole article here.
Published this week in the St. Louis Jewish Light.
Norman Pressman raises an interesting point in his objection to the all-girls musical productions of Block Yeshiva and Bais Yaakov (Letter to the editor, Feb. 29). He is correct that I will not be able to attend my own daughter’s performance, in accordance with Jewish law. I appreciate his heartfelt concern for my feelings and those of my daughter, but our commitment to 3,300 years of tradition mitigates any pangs of disappointment.
Be that as it may, objection to this kind of “segregation” begs the question of consistency. Why has Mr. Pressman not similarly denounced the JCC for segregating men and women into separate locker rooms? Why has he not expressed outrage against the International Olympic Committee for refusing to integrate men and women in athletic competition, against the NAACP for devoting resources solely to the African-American community, and against professional basketball for its underrepresentation of the vertically disadvantaged? Indeed, why has he not filed suit against the Department of Transportation for segregating northbound traffic from southbound traffic with those ubiquitous yellow lines?
Ultimately, it is neither the illogic nor the pettiness of Norman Pressman’s reflexive attacks upon Jewish tradition that matters. Of far greater concern is the pattern of poor judgment shown by the Jewish Light in providing a platform for hatemongering and factionalism.
Responsible spokesmen representing different opinions may argue passionately without abandoning reason or civility, and a local paper should offer a forum for articulate voices expressing divergent views. However, the failure of the Light to demonstrate sound editorial discernment is among the primary reasons why the paper has lost credibility in the eyes of so many while alienating a substantial part of the Jewish community.
On March 16, 1968, soldiers of the 1st Battalion’s Charlie Company committed one of the most notorious war crimes in American history when they brutally massacred over 300 villagers in the Vietnamese hamlet of Mỹ Lai.
Was every soldier in the American army complicit in the crime? Did the perpetrators of the massacre act in accordance with the dictates and the mission of the American military? Was the savagery inflicted on innocent men, women, and children indicative of the country whose soldiers wore its insignia on their uniforms?
The simple answer is: no.
We can talk, legitimately, about collective responsibility and the mixed cultural messages that may have contributed to the atrocity. But when Americans learned about the barbarism of their own soldiers, the untempered outrage that poured forth testified that the individuals had acted as individuals, and that their inhumanity in no way represented the values of their country.
The same was true about the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 by the marginally religious zealot Yigal Amir. As unpopular as Rabin may have been among the religious community, only the most extreme ideologues saw his actions as anything other than an aberration of the Torah values he invoked to justify cold-blooded murder.
And the same is true now with respect to the hideous spitting incident in the Beit Shemesh community in central Israel. It doesn’t matter that the perpetrator may wear a frock coat and sidelocks. It doesn’t matter that he may refrain from kindling fire on the Sabbath, may keep a strictly kosher diet, and may stand in prayer before his Creator three times a day. It doesn’t matter that he may study Talmudic texts and analyze the finest points of Jewish law. It doesn’t matter if his neighbors, whether few or many, sympathize with his attitudes and his actions.
At best, he is a misguided fool. At worst, he is an imposter and a terrorist. Whatever he is, he does not represent the ideals of Torah Judaism.
The sad truth is that the Torah, the Almighty’s guide to morality and virtuous conduct, is only as good as we allow it to be. The Torah may be a perfect expression of the Divine Will, but it only works to the extent that imperfect humans are willing to let it shape their conduct and, even more essentially, their character. It does not mystically or magically turn us into saints; rather, it teaches us how to transform ourselves into spiritual beings. But it remains up to us to follow the path it lights before us.
The sad truth is also that there are imposters among us; the Talmud itself laments the “pious fools” who clothe themselves in the external trappings of religiosity with no comprehension whatsoever of true spiritual values. The Jew who prays fervently and then cheats in business, the Jew who clops his chest in repentance then slanders his neighbor, the Jew who meticulously trains his son to read from the Torah scroll and then spits on a child who may have innocently absorbed the social mores of the surrounding secular world – a Jew such as this is worse than a fraud. He is nothing less than a terrorist, for he brings violent derision upon the Torah and all its sincere practitioners.
Frequently at odds with contemporary Western values, Torah values are easily mocked, satirized, and misrepresented by intolerant skeptics who would rather ridicule than seek answers to their questions. But the Orthodox community includes tens of thousands of Jews like myself, Jews raised in irreligious homes who chose to return to Torah observance, Jews who learned to appreciate the ancient wisdom of our people by asking those same questions, by searching for teachers and mentors who could articulate the answers, and by listening patiently to their explanations.
Unfortunately, many secularists and most of the media prefer to deal in stereotypes. It’s easier to depict bearded men in long coats as fanatics than it is to examine the historical and philosophical foundations of their tradition. It’s more provocative to caricature women wearing head-scarves, three-quarter sleeves, and knee-length skirts as burqa-clad Jewish Wahabists than it is to concede the modest elegance projected by many Orthodox women. It suits the progressive agenda better to decry separate seating on buses in religious communities as Shariah-like segregation than it does to contemplate how sensitivity to sexual boundaries bolsters the integrity of the family structure against the hedonism of secular society.
The useful idiots who masquerade as devoutly orthodox but possess little understanding of authentic spiritual refinement empower cynics eager to smear an entire theology with the broad brush of condemnation based on the actions of a few. But amidst the outrage, consider this: Does it make any sense that true adherents of the culture that taught the world the values of peace, charity, and loving-kindness would endorse the public humiliation of a little girl in the name of piety?
It doesn’t. And we don’t.
Published in the St. Louis Jewish Light.
Earlier this month, National Public Radio aired a report on its afternoon program All Things Considered that began with this question:
When is a Jew not Jewish enough?
The story went on to describe the circumstances of one Jonathan Leavitt, a native Californian who recently arrived in Israel as a new immigrant to discover that, according to Jewish law, he cannot be considered a Jew because his mother’s conversion process had not been overseen by a Torah observant rabbinic authority.
Amidst numerous quotations from two victims of “domination” by the “ultra-Orthodox” and one indignant representative of the Reform movement, NPR honored its own version of editorial balance by including two sentences from an Orthodox rabbi who, although a distinguished authority, was clearly less than fluent in the English language.
Predictably, the article concluded by playing the “Holocaust card,” implying that Orthodox Judaism is somehow comparable to the Nazi party and blaming its rabbis for dividing the Jewish world.
For those genuinely interested in understanding the other side of the issue, I offer this letter, only slightly revised from the one I sent NPR:
I listened with interest to Lourdes Garcia-Navarro’s report about Jewish identity in Israel. Regrettably, your reporter did your audience a disservice by not clearly representing both sides of the issue.
For the first 3,100 years of Jewish history, there existed virtually no debate over the fundamental prerequisite for conversion to Judaism: namely, a demonstration of sincere commitment to upholding the precepts of Torah law. Consequently, the ultimate decision regarding acceptance of any prospective convert finds its basis in the collective scholarship and wisdom of judges who are themselves fully observant and grounded in the legal traditions of Torah law and practice.
Since the early 1800s, however, the Reform and Conservative movements have, by their own admission, discarded adherence to Torah law as an essential principle of their belief systems. Consequently, because individuals converted by representatives of these movements have been denied the information necessary to make any real commitment to Torah observance, their conversions cannot be considered authentic.
No one is questioning the sincerity of Jonathan Leavitt or any other intended convert whose Jewish identity is not accepted by the Israeli rabbinate. But just as an immigrant seeking United States citizenship must meet the requirements of this country before he can be considered a true citizen, so too must any hopeful proselyte meet the established standards of traditional Jewish law to be universally accepted as a member of the Jewish people. If not for this single standard, the Jewish nation would truly become a house divided against itself.
There is no issue of politics or elitism here. Neither is there, as your correspondent suggested from the first line of her report, a question of being “Jewish enough.” Unlike any other people in history, the Jews have survived countless generations of persecution and attempted genocide because we have remained firm in our commitment to our values and laws. Today traditional Judaism is under assault from a new adversary: the political correctness of contemporary culture, with media outlets like NPR grasping for every opportunity to discredit Torah Jews in the eyes of the world for daring to insist that the traditions of 33 centuries are sacred and inviolable.
Finally, and for the record, there is no such thing as an “ultra-orthodox” Jew. It is a media-created term, designed to imply irrational extremism, just as the name “orthodox” was imposed by the early Reform movement leaders two hundred years ago to imply anachronism and calcification. Such disingenuous labeling stifles meaningful discussion and is inconsistent with responsible journalism.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Emily at NPR replied to my email, informing me that my feedback is important to them, and that my thoughts have been noted.
It is comforting to know, as well, that “NPR is always delighted to hear from listeners.”
A look back at previous insights on the traditional day of Jewish mourning and how to hasten our redemption from exile.
None can match the power and eloquence of Rav Shimshon Rafoel Hirsch:
There can be true peace among men only if they are all at peace with G-d. One who dares to struggle against the enemies of what is good and true in the eyes of G-d is – by this very struggle – one of the fighters for the “covenant of peace” on earth.
Conversely, one who, for the sake of what he imagines to be peace with his fellow men, cedes the field without protest and allows them to stir up strife with G-d makes common cause – by his very love of peace – with the enemies of the “covenant of peace” on earth.
Understanding the natural and spiritual causes of the destruction of the Second Temple. Excerpted from my book, Dawn to Destiny.
Apparently, many in the broader Jewish community have taken exception to my rebuttal of Carnie Rose’s article, in which he defames the character of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses).
I don’t have to wonder how the general readership of the Jewish Light would have responded had an editorial been run condemning Martin Luther King for infidelity. Would not the Jewish community have responded with justifiable outrage? Would not leaders and layman alike have — correctly and properly — vilified the editorialist for needlessly smearing America’s most iconic civil rights leader and obscuring the greater issue of the continuing battle for civic justice?
Why then, was there not a whisper of discontent when Rabbi Rose concocted imagined criticism of Moshe the Lawgiver’s personal conduct? Is the Jewish community so conflicted that its commitment to anti-defamation does not extend to the greatest of Jewish luminaries? Could Rabbi Rose not have found a single source in all Torah literature from which to teach the importance of sensitivity to family members without engaging in baseless slander? And why have I been compared to a member of the Ku Klux Klan for calling him out for his defamatory remarks?
The immediate object[ive] is to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people.
This quote is taken from the mission statement of the anti-defamation league. Whatever comments I made about Rabbi Rose’s article were consistent with that mission, both warranted and defensible in light of his profoundly and needlessly offensive remarks. I take it as a disturbing sign of the moral confusion of our times that the same Jewish notables who have condemned me for defending the honor of Judaism’s greatest hero expressed not the slightest concern over Rabbi Rose’s wholesale denigration of Moses, a figure far greater and more significant than either Rabbi Rose or myself.
An open letter to the St. Louis Jewish community
And Adam knew his wife…
Why does the Torah employ an expression of “knowledge” as a euphemism for intimacy? Because emotional and psychological intimacy is impossible with intellectual familiarity. Similarly, the term for “gratitude,” hakoras hatov, translates literally as “recognition of the good.” One cannot feel gratitude without first seeing the good; with that recognition, gratitude results naturally and inevitably in a morally healthy mind.
The Me’am Loez explains that the character trait of ingratitude underlies the Torah command to destroy the nation of Amoleik. Having become free from the Egyptian sphere of influence in the wake of the Ten Plagues, the Amolekites used their newly acquired freedom to attack the nation responsible for the overthrow of their former overlords. A nation so indifferent to how it has benefitted from another is similarly incapable of attaining even the most minimal level of human virtue. Just the opposite, such a nation will rebel pathologically and unceasingly against any moral or legal structure imposed on it by the Ultimate Authority. Consequently, its continued existence cannot be tolerated upon this earth.
With this in mind, I feel it incumbent upon me as a member of the St. Louis Jewish community in general, and as a teacher and parent of Block Yeshiva High School in particular, to express my most heartfelt and sincere gratitude to an individual who has gone above and beyond in support of our school.
Every private educational institution has been suffering through the current economy, and Block Yeshiva has been no exception. As the financial crisis has steadily worsened over several years, a few persons of note have devoted themselves to the school’s survival. They have had, and continue to have, our deepest appreciation.
Nevertheless, as the situation continued to deteriorate and the viability of the school became increasingly uncertain, one individual stepped forward to address the problems head-on, with passion and energy drawn from her increasing familiarity with Block Yeshiva and the school’s extraordinary contribution to the community. As the twelfth hour drew near, one person made all the difference. I therefore take great pleasure in publicly offering this small expression of gratitude and appreciation to Ms. Shu Simon.
Ms. Simon has not always possessed such enthusiasm for Block Yeshiva. Over the last few years, however, she has learned how the school strikes a harmonious balance between Torah studies and secular knowledge, how Block students develop academic discipline, Jewish awareness and commitment, refinement of character, and international distinction, how Block serves the greater Jewish community, and how Block graduates are sought after by the most prestigious yeshivas, seminaries, and universities. The more she learned about Block, the more intimately connected Ms. Simon felt to the school and the more prominent role she shouldered in support of our mission.
While many around her indulged in hand-wringing, finger-pointing, and strategic astigmatism, Shu Simon demonstrated the singular purpose and tenacity that are the signs of true leadership. (I know nothing of the details of what she did – my job it is not to address the business operations of the school but to attend the academic and spiritual welfare of the students, per my training and experience.) But amidst an atmosphere in which ideology and personal bias have frequently overshadowed Torah values and objective achievement, Ms. Simon has won a place in the hearts of all those who have sacrificed their time, energy, and tranquility on behalf of Block Yeshiva.
Any individual or institution that aspires to high standards and ideals will inevitably acquire detractors. On the other hand, attempting to be everything to everybody results in becoming nothing to anybody. Those who know the Block faculty and administration well have already recognized their invaluable contribution to the community. Those who haven’t are not paying attention.
Tragically, we live in a culture where educators often feel unappreciated for their labors, and so we would be especially delinquent if we missed this opportunity to show our appreciation for Shu Simon. May her efforts serve as a call to action for others, as well as a reminder that the crisis is far from over. At best, we have gained a little time to rally our forces.
If you don’t know Block Yeshiva, it’s worth your time to find out who and what we are. If you do, then you already know Block’s value. Don’t remain silent, lest the voices of cynicism and ingratitude create an illusion of discontent and carry the day.
And again: thank you Ms. Simon.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson