Saturday, February 17, 2007

Frivolous lawsuit against Orthomom

Orthomom is a target in a lawsuit by a public official who has been the target of criticism by blog commenters. The public official filing the lawsuit is also Jewish.

I would like to express my support for Orthomom in this case. Public officials should be able to take criticism. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. I am willing to contribute to Orthomom's legal defense fund if it comes to that.

That said, some of the attacks (by commenters, not by Orthomom) are not consistent with the way that Orthodox Jews are supposed to behave. There are halachot against motzi shem ra and lashan hara that are violated a lot in the blogosphere. One prominent posek was the subject of a recent motzi shem ra attack -- such is completely inexcusable. And that others do it is no excuse. I post under my real name and am open about my identity partly so that I am less tempted to violate these halachot. I urge all who comment on blogs to be fair and avoid both lashan hara and motzi shem ra.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Religion and Presidents

In this week's Jewish Press, senior editor Jason Maoz interviews Paul Kengor, associate professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

Grove City College is a college that has as part of its mission statement the following sentence:
"Rejecting relativism and secularism, it fosters intellectual, moral, spiritual, and social development consistent with a commitment to Christian truth, morals, and freedom."

I wondered why the Jewish Press could not have interviewed a prominent Orthodox Jewish political scientist at a Jewish institution such as Prof. David Luchins of Touro, but on to the article itself:

Prof. Kengor quotes Michael Medved as saying that "A de-Christianized Western Europe could be a very bad Europe for Jews" and agreeing with the point. As if Europe has been good for Jews? Hitler wasn't Christian, but many of his henchmen were. And both Chmielnicki and Torquemada were devout Christians, as were the leaders of the Crusades and all the Czars.

Prof. Kengor then makes some statements that are misleading if not outright false. For example, he claims that all 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were Christians. That only is true if you count John Adams as a Congregationalist, Thomas Jefferson as an Anglican, and Benjamin Rush as a Presbyterian. Their heretical views would never be taught at Grove City! He is correct about John Winthrop's views -- but neglects to point out that Jews were not welcome in Winthrop's "City on a hill", or that New Amsterdam (later New York) worshiped moneymaking at least as much as any transcendent creator. (Some would argue that this is still true!)

He continues:

"You can draw a straight line from Winthrop to Washington to Woodrow Wilson to Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. This piety is embedded in the very fabric of this nation."

I don't argue that the US isn't pious. But "straight line" from Puritan minister Winthrop to Anglican vestryman Washington to Presbyterian elder Wilson had to detour past out and out heretics like Jefferson, Unitarians John Quincy Adams (co-founder of All Soul's Unitarian Church in Washington, DC), Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft (later President of the American Unitarian Association) not to mention Andrew Johnson, who appears never to have set foot in a church in his life. (If anyone can find credible evidence to the contrary, please post!)
Many 19th century Presidents seemed to have had very little interest in organized religion although most had affiliated with some Protestant church at some point in their lives. (The aforementioned Unitarians, Lincoln, and Johnson were exceptions.) At least Prof. Kengor does give Jefferson credit for believing in God, which some of his contemporary political opponents did not.

Prof. Kengor makes the valid point that no American President has ever been actively hostile to religious expression. However, some folks on the right are unable to distinguish that truth from the fact that many 19th century Presidents, including Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson, took strict-constructionist views of the First Amendment that are similar to that of the ACLU today and confuse the ACLU position with hostility. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is little to argue about in Prof. Kengor's description of the evils of communism, which were well understood by most of the US left as well as the right. But in caricaturing the liberal view of President George W. Bush as a 'supposedly rigid fundamentalist Protestant' he fails to note that this liberal writer is well aware the younger President Bush belongs to a church that rejects fundamentalist theology and intolerance. Jews don't oppose President Bush because of his religious views, but because of his administration's policies, incompetance, and corruption.

Parshat Mishpatim

Here I recycle the very first substantive post on this blog, from February 2006.

"One of the main issues that the Torah deals with in this week's *parsha* is that of slavery."

So says Rabbi Berel Wein in his commentary:

Rather than try to add to what Rabbi Wein has written, I'd like to move to something more recent: The chattel slavery in the United States. It ought to be obvious to anyone that it didn't have a lot in common with the institution with the same name that was instituted in the Torah. Yet, amazingly, there was quite a bit of Jewish support for it -- much of it Orthodox.
Consider for example this essay by Rabbi Morris Raphall, of Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan. (Back then, BJ was solidly Orthodox, as was its rabbi.)

In the preface to the essay he writes,


The capitals are those of the Rabbi, who brushes off the fact that slaveholding in a manner contrary to halachah is definitely a sin. Consider the haftarah that we would be reading this week if it were not Shabat Shekelim – the prophet Jeremiah tells Klal Yisrael that this particular sin will result in the first exile! Rabbi Raphall does accept that southern slaveholding is not in accordance with the Torah model, but isn’t particularly concerned about what the non-Jews are doing. Never mind the fact that there were some JEWS who were slaveowners.

Also note the use of Christian sources to justify his position. I found that bizarre.

On the very same day Orthodox Jews in Baltimore heard this from their rabbi, Issachar Ber Illowy:

“Who can blame our brethren of the South for seceding from a society whose government can not, or will not, protect the property rights and privileges of a great portion of the Union against the encroachments of a majority misguided by some influential, ambitious aspirants and selfish politicians who, under the color of religion and the disguise of philanthropy, have thrown the country into a general state of confusion, and millions into want and poverty?”

Property rights? At least Rabbi Raphall accepted that the “property” owned by the slaveowners had been treated as less than human.

“We have no right to exercise violence against the institutions of other states or countries, even if religious feelings and philanthropic sentiments bit us disapprove of them.”
Never mind that no shots would not be fired for three months – and that the secessionists would fire the first shot. And it seems Rabbi Illowy didn’t disapprove, given his next career move (see below).

Michael Heilprin, also Orthodox but not a Rabbi, takes Rabbi Raphall to task exactly one week later:

‘Have we not had enough of the "reproach of Egypt?" Must the stigma of Egyptian principles be fastened on the people of Israel by Israelitish lips themselves?’

He goes on to give the Rabbi a lecture on Hebrew vocabulary, citing Mendelssohn and Zunz! (Is it worse to cite heterodox or infidel views?) Later, he wonders if it is possible to condemn the then-current Mormon practice of plural marriage if one accepts Rabbi Raphall’s methodology:
‘should the people of Utah, before or after their admission into the Union as a sovereign State (on which occasion they would, no doubt, avail themselves of the precedent of the Cotton States, immediately to secede from the Union), establish certain peculiar domestic institutions of an incestuous character, "the eloquent preacher of Brooklyn" could not speak against it without incurring the guilt of blasphemy, Jacob having married two sisters, and our Rabbi being unable to discover "the precise time when" an act that was permitted to a patriarch and prohibited by Moses only to the Hebrews, "ceased to be permitted and became sinful" to all others.’

The most prominent Jew to oppose slavery was the Baltimore Reform Rabbi, David Einhorn.
Here is what he has to say on the matter:

“The question simply is: Is Slavery a moral evil or not? And it took Dr. Raphall, a Jewish preacher, to concoct the deplorable farce in the name of divine authority, to proclaim the justification, the moral blamelessness of servitude, and to lay down the law to Christian preachers of opposite convictions. The Jew, a descendant of the race that offers daily praises to God for deliverance out of the house of bondage in Egypt, and even today suffers under the yoke of slavery in most places of the old world, crying out to God, undertook to designate slavery as a perfectly sinless institution, sanctioned by God.”

Rabbi Einhorn’s essay has references to tanakh, Talmud, and rishonim in contrast to Rabbi Raphall’s bizarre references to Christian sources. Who is the Orthodox rabbi here, anyway? And

Rabbi Einhorn twists the knife:

“Dr. Raphall's demonstrations from the New Testament appear about as sound as those from the Mosaic Books. But in this sphere we will not compete with the orthodox Rabbi. It may be that Dr. Raphall possesses greater erudition in the Christian Scripture than he does in the Jewish…. Had a Christian clergyman in Europe delivered the Raphall address—the Jewish-orthodox as well as Jewish-reform press would have been set going to call the wrath of heaven and earth upon such falsehoods, to denounce such disgrace, and חלול השם.”

I'm Orthodox, but in this case it was the Reform Rabbi who got this one right. Both Illowy and Einhorn left Baltimore shortly after those words. Illowy went to New Orleans where the Orthodox Jews there approved of his support for slavery. Einhorn fled Baltimore for Philadelphia where his anti-slavery views caused less controversy. The Orthodox Rabbi there, Rabbi Sabato Morais, was also an opponent of slavery although possibly not as outspoken. Einhorn and Morais may have agreed on little else, but on that issue they were both on the correct side of the issue.

A large amount of primary source material from that time has been placed online at

Mazel Tov!

The College Board just released the results of last year's Advanced Placement examinations, which are an opportunity for high school students to earn college credit for college level courses in high school. It included lists of high schools that did unusually well.

And the top performing school among all high schools of under 300 students in grades 10 through 12 on the Advanced Placement Biology exam is....SAR High School, a Modern Orthodox High School located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, just a few blocks from my home! Even more amazing is that SAR, a brand new school, did not even have a grade 12 last year and has not yet graduated a single student -- yet bested every single other small high school in the United States.

Mazel tov to SAR Principal, Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, to AP Biology teacher Robert S. Goodman, and to all the students. This a tremendous kiddush HaShem. I look forward to seeing some of you in graduate school or medical school in a few years!

The entire AP report is online here. SAR is mentioned on page 20 (page 22 in my version of Acrobat Reader).

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Should we all move to Utah?

The Utah legislature has just approved the broadest private school tuition voucher program in the United States:,1249,660194371,00.html

The program offers vouchers of from $500 to $3000 depending on income, with higher income parents receiving less. The governor is expected to sign the bill.

If the law passes the expected court test, should Jews all flock to Salt Lake City to start yeshivot? We might want to hold off until the court test, though: Utah's Blaine Amendment appears pretty stringent: And public support for the bill is definitely lukewarm if the recent poll showing 50% opposition is to be believed. And the anti-tax crazies haven't weighed in yet -- this law will represent a substantial commitment of resources from the state's general fund.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is beyond the pale

As someone who publicly identifies with the left, it is particularly important that when someone else identified with the left makes a public statement that is completely unacceptable, that I single it out for criticism. Such a statement was made by Rabbi Michael Lerner this week when he suggested that it is possible that the US government might have had something to do with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001:

There is zero evidence that the US government had anything to do with the attacks. There is tremendous evidence that the terrorists were associated with Al Qaeda, which claimed responsiblity. The anti-Semites of the Arab world who blame Israel choose to ignore this, which means they think Al Qaeda lies! Rabbi Lerner makes the same error and he should be ashamed to be associated with such.

I have found plenty of reason to criticize the Bush administration, in both domestic and foregn policy. But this is not such. And to do so is beyond the pale -- it is essentially suggesting treasonous behavior. Although I have publicly said that George W. Bush is the worst US President in my lifetime, he would never even think of such. Rabbi Lerner should reconsider and apologize.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

More public thank yous

Two years ago today (on the secular calendar) my wife and I were married. I'd like to thank her for putting up with my occasional arrogance, and frequent running off to minyanim and shiurim (including tonight!), not to mention too much time spent on the internet. I'd also like to thank for making the Shidduch. (We are match #152.) We didn't do anything special tonight but I sent a dozen roses to her office. And we had treated ourselves to a nice kosher dinner Sunday night, which was the 104 week anniversary of our wedding. (Yes, we got married on Super Bowl Sunday. And restaurants that lack televisions are nice and quiet on the night of the Super Bowl.)

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Jews do not worship free markets

The title of this post is the kind of thing that ought to be self-evident. We worship God, not markets. Yet many Jews, even Orthodox Jews, seem to think that there is something magical about free market capitalism. This despite the many intrusions into the operation of such markets that are mandated by the Torah. The most famous example is the explicitly prohibition against freehold land tenure in Eretz Yisrael. Taanit 20b offers an example when interference in the market, even when not required by the Torah, is meritorious. Rav Huna, who was very wealthy, took it upon himself to try to protect agricultural producers from the merciless free market: "On every eve of Sabbath he would send his servants to the markets with instructions to purchase all the vegetables, which the marketers had left on their hands, and throw them into the stream, in order that they might not be put on sale again the following week in an unwholesome condition." (Rodkinson translation.)

Rav Huna as making sure that the growers would continue to produce goods for the market, so that buyers would have a plentiful supply. This is not much different from what governments in Europe, the United States, and some other countries do to this very day. It is precisely the kind of market interference that free market economists rail against. But the hashgafah is not according to the economists, as this brief aggadic material shows.

A public thank you

I was on the road this week, and had a meeting that was scheduled to end at 5pm on Friday -- in a place where candlelighting was at 5:11pm! Fortunately, about a half a mile a way, was a wonderful Orthodox synagogue whose rabbi is fellow blogger Rabbi Joshua Maroof. Rabbi Maroof was a wonderfully gracious host and I wish to publicly thank him and his community for their hospitality.