A Tribute to R. Lichtenstein

Mosaic (the successor of Jewish Ideas Daily) has published an article which is my tribute to Moreinu Harav Lichtenstein.

I wrote the last part first. Last year, at the event celebrating Rav Aharon's 80th birthday, I and many others who I spoke to afterward had real religious experiences that it took some time to digest. A few weeks later, I wrote an essay that I distributed to some friends, attempting to unpack. The concluding, personal element of the Mosaic piece is a distillation of that essay, which follows a sorry attempt to introduce Rav Aharon to a general audience.

Below are some paragraphs from the original essay that didn't appear in the Mosaic piece:

There is an important double entendre in the title of By His Light, a book adaptation of Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein's thoughts on values and character development. The (intentional) ambiguity lies in the fact that R. Aharon himself is offering his thoughts on what it means to walk by God's light, which in turn allows us to develop our religious personalities through the light that R. Aharon sheds. For R. Aharon, the antecedent for "His" is God Himself, whereas for the rest of us, the antecedent is R. Aharon.

Then came the Friday morning of Rav Aharon’s birthday celebration. It was Rosh Hodesh, the first day of a new Jewish month. In those months, this semi-holiday was in fact the one date each month when the Old City of Jerusalem was once again wracked by the type of sectarian strife that ripped it to shreds once before. Factions and counter-factions fought over control of Judaism’s sacred precincts. In an earlier age, the Talmud tells us, the great sage Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai slipped out of besieged Jerusalem and petitioned the Roman general-cum-emperor Vespasian to be allowed to establish an enclave for the rabbis at Yavneh, outside the riven and doomed Jerusalem. That morning, Alon Shvut felt like Yavneh.
I felt secure that Rav Aharon’s effect on my faith was not diluted or confused by any personal charm or magnetism, as I have spent several years cultivating a visceral and – to my mind – healthy allergy to charisma, especially the rabbinic variety. There was no argument or proof that I heard at that event that could have had any profound effect on my convictions. Most of my mental energy during the hour of Rav Aharon’s lecture was spent trying (largely unsuccessfully) to decipher his difficult language. As always, his high register and conceptual complexity, combined with the fact that he spoke in my second language (Hebrew) and has somewhat slurred speech that has not improved with age, made it quadruply challenging to follow along.

A final note to those who arrived at this blog via the link at the end of the Mosaic article: this blog is largely defunct. I use it mainly to redirect some traffic toward articles I've published elsewhere. If you want to follow along, I recommend my Facebook and Twitter feeds.


Pre-Pesach Update

In my last dispatch, I mentioned that Pesha and I would be scholars-in-residence on a Danube River cruise for Pesach. It was not meant to be. The cruise was cancelled several months ago, and we will be with my parents and sisters and all their families for the Seder. We are very much looking forward.

Since the last dispatch, I have begun writing regularly for several more newspapers and media outlets. I now have a monthly column at the Denver-based Intermountain Jewish News, and I have retained the right to publish those columns elsewhere after they appear at IJN, and all the articles are posted on my blog at the Times of Israel. In these articles, I criticize how hyperactive but bright students are addressed in Jewish day schools, reflect on why Vienna became the birthplace of Zionism, add a dimension to my Commentary review of My Promised Land, and critique Israel’s proposed “Nazi Law” by digging up some old articles in which Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky compare each other to Hitler. These articles have already been syndicated in Baltimore Jewish Life, The Lakewood Scoop, and The Jewish Link of Bergen County. If you are interested in syndicating my column in your local Jewish paper, please let me know.
Although I have rarely been accused of representing the establishment, I found myself defending the RCA in a series of articles that appeared in the Jewish Week. The initial article praised the RCA for its handling of the controversy surrounding Rabbi Avi Weiss and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. That article was in turn criticized by Dov Zakheim and Steven Bayme in the same paper, which then gave me the opportunity to publish a rejoinder

The debates about religion and state in Israel proceed apace, and I recently had the opportunity to post my fullest treatment yet of this fraught topic. The context is a critique of a bill that purports to systematize the issue of religious conversion in Israel. The article appeared in Mida, and is currently being translated into Hebrew for that site. This will be my first foray into the Hebrew-speaking world on this issue. In addition, I recently rewrote my critique of religious institutionalization through the lens of the first chapters of the Book of Shmuel and the Talmud’s treatment of them. This article will appear in a forthcoming volume, which I am currently editing, honoring the memory of Marc Weinberg z”l. I have posted it online but have set up a paywall (just $1; if you’re interested in previewing it, email me).

The OU’s magazine, Jewish Action, recently had a special section on English-speaking olim and their impact in Israel. I contributed a short piece on life in Modiin and a short profile of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s impact on broader Israeli culture. I was also commissioned to profile filmmaker Joseph Cedar, but that piece did not end up in the magazine. I posted it here.

A couple of other odds and ends include this translation of an interview between Rabbi Prof. Alan Brill and Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes and this translation of an article on Mishna Sukkah by Rabbi Dr. Avie Walfish (see his stuff on Pesachim, too). A few months ago, I was interviewed by Nachum Segal about the English biography of Rav Yehuda Amital; the interview is archived here. A Facebook conversation about the history of Orthodox blogging, in which many of the most popular bloggers from a decade ago participated, was a lot of fun, too. Are we already getting nostalgic about the early years of blogging?

Before returning to Pesach, we must give Purim its due. This year was more productive than most on the Purim front, as I returned to work on our community Purim shpiel after a hiatus of several years. All of the clips can be viewed here, but my favorite is our lampoon of the Beit Shemesh elections, and particularly the concluding parody of “House of the Rising Sun.” I also posted a “news” item about controversies within Eastern Orthodoxy in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In honor of the wedding of Dov and Esther Malka Karoll at the beginning of Adar II, a few of us wrote a קרולץ, a series of brief poems to be recited before each of the sheva berakhot. Good times.

Returning to Pesach, the recently-published Peninei Halakha: Laws of Pesah by R. Eliezer Melamed has been getting some good press and some excellent reviews. R. Eli Fink’s comments are here, and other reviews appear here and here. I was interviewed by Nachum Segal about this book as well. We posted a sample chapter (on kitniyot) last year, here. Speaking of kitniyot, my original contribution this year to the Pesach conversation has been a blog post on a theory of the origins of the kitniyot custom. I relate it to the shift to a three-field crop rotation in medieval Germany and northern France. Curious? Read the whole thing here.

Best wishes for a chag kasher ve-same’ach,


My Profile of Joseph Cedar - and More

The most recent issue of Jewish Action features a large section on English-speaking olim to Israel. It profiles several communities and several olim who have had an impact on broader Israeli society. I was asked to write about being an oleh in Modiin, and was also asked to write two of the personal profiles. One - my profile of Rav Lichtenstein (scroll down)- was published. I also profiled filmmaker Joseph Cedar, but unfortunately the profile was ultimately left out, mainly because he simply does not consider himself an oleh. I really enjoyed my conversation with him, anyway. The editor has permitted me to post my profile of Cedar else here, so here it is:

Filmmaker Joseph Cedar has won awards and acclaim in Israel, Europe, and the United States, and has twice been a finalist for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Yet the day before the Academy Awards, a Shabbat, he walked several miles to a media event and addressed the crowd from a seat to which a microphone had been affixed beforehand, while his fellow panelists used hand-held microphones. This might make him seem like an American Orthodox dream come true, yet Cedar himself often wonders if the same avenues would have been open to him had his parents not made aliyah in 1973, when he was five. He looks at American Orthodoxy and sees that it has largely given up on attempting this balancing act, either by leaving the religion to assimilate and pursue ambitions, or by withdrawing from the broader cultural and professional world into a more exclusivist religious environment. He credits his sense of balance to his parents and the environment they chose to raise their family: “Their move to Israel meant I grew up with a values system that turned out to be superior to the one I would have adopted had they not made aliyah.”

Cedar does not consider himself an oleh. Aliyah, implies choice, and, as he puts it, “Nobody asked me.” He does not even consider himself American-Israeli, as his social milieu growing up in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood was almost entirely Hebrew-speaking. As Joseph and his five younger siblings grew up, even his parents’ home became Israeli. Yet American and world culture remained part and parcel of the home. “My parents exposed me to everything,” Joseph recalls, “not just American culture. The soundtrack of our house consisted of Broadway musicals, an American art form, but there were other things as well.”
Though he envisions a primarily Israeli audience when he makes his films, he acknowledges that this exposure, plus the additional years Joseph spent living in the US – as a student at NYU and when his father, a renowned molecular biologist, was on sabbatical – helped him consider a broader audience. His first two films (“Time of Favor”, 2000, and “Campfire”, 2004) explore aspects of the religious Zionist culture in which he was raised. They were acclaimed in Israel, but registered mild interest outside. His third film (“Beaufort”, 2007) examined the futility of Israel’s military presence in Lebanon. It won awards at major international film festivals. “Footnote” (2011), Cedar’s most acclaimed film, to date, is set in Hebrew University’s Talmud department and depicts the petty rivalries, competing theories, and sense of futility that characterize arcane academic disciplines. It won the award for best screenplay at Cannes and, like “Beaufort”, was an Oscar finalist.

Cedar made aliyah young enough to become a full-fledged, unhyphenated Israeli, a home-grown insider, but one who has been enriched by the culture, values, and religious sensibilities of his parents’ home. In this vein, he reminds us that the most profound way that Anglo olim make a difference in Israel is through their children and unborn generations who will be part of the Jewish future in the Jewish state.


A Unified Theory of Kitniyot

The Ashkenazic custom to refrain from kitniyot developed out of agricultural and climatic conditions and developments that were particular to those communities. It is not the result of some sort of communal neurosis.

That's the gist of the brand-spanking-new theory of kitniyot that I just posted at the Times of Israel.
Enjoy, and please consider sharing that post with all those grumpy Ashkenazim and all those who think this custom is nonsensical.
Hag kasher ve-same'ah.


Perverting the Priesthood

Some of my early blog posts address the tension - discernible in the biblical text as well as the Talmud's interpretation of that text - between Hana and Eli. It has now taken the form of a full-blown essay, one that will hopefully someday be a chapter in my book that will explore the interaction between Halakha and Aggada in various talmudic passages. A lot of the material got its start on this blog.

This new essay is something of an experiment. I am charging $1 to download the essay. My hope is that the price will offset some of the time I put into writing it. My preference is to write about the things that fascinate and intrigue me, and hopefully this will create some momentum for me to continue to do so without having to tailor my writing to the needs of a particular publication (though I will continue to do that as well).

Please consider spending the dollar. I think you will find it well-spent. Please also do not download and then distribute the essay unless you pay for each copy you send. Thanks - and enjoy!

Perverting the Priesthood by Elli Fischer


Books, Articles, a Commentary Review, and Pesach and Summer Plans

It has been a while since my last update, but there’s lots to tell. We’ve got books, articles, and travel plans.

Let’s start with the travel plans. If you don’t have Pesach plans yet, please consider joining the Fischers on a riverboat cruise along the Danube River, where Pesha and I will be scholars in residence. In addition to shi’urim on Pesach themes, we will be discussing some fascinating aspects of Austro-Hungarian Jewish history. Check out a list of some of our topics. If you decide to join us, please mention my name in your application. We will also be in the US this summer, for the first time since 2011. If you are interested in bringing one or both of us in as a scholar-in-residence during July or August, please let me know.

I haven’t written a book (yet), but I’ve had a hand in a few that have come out recently. During the summer, Rabbi Benny Lau’s Jeremiah: the Fate of a Prophet appeared, and next week, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha: Laws of Pesah is scheduled for publication. Both are published by Koren/Maggid, and I edited both volumes. In the case of Rav Melamed’s work, it is the first of a projected 15 (!) volume series. Two volumes on the Laws of Shabbat and two volumes on the Laws of Prayer (one specifically geared toward women; sponsorships are available, so please be in touch if you are interested) will appear in the near future.
A copy of Prof. Moshe Halbertal’s Maimonides: Life and Thought should be arriving in by mailbox any day. I had a small hand in this volume as well, having translated a chapter that originally appeared in Hebrew. I look forward to sinking my teeth into the rest of the volume.
Last but not least, The Iranian Talmud by my brother-in-law Shai Secunda is hot off the press. He and I have collaborated on articles, but this one’s all his (though he graciously mentions me as a “valued interlocutor” in the acknowledgments). We are absolutely thrilled for him!

There have been quite a few opportunities for me to write articles lately, with more on the way. A few months ago, New York’s Jewish Week gave me the opportunity to express some thoughts on Rav Ovadia Yosef upon the occasion of his passing (there has also been some interest in translating R. Benny Lau’s book on R. Ovadia; once again, there are sponsorship opportunities. Contact me if you are interested). More recently, the same publication gratified my penchant for pot-stirring by publishing my article on get­-withholding, in which I buck conventional wisdom. The backlash has been milder than expected, at least for now.
The most recent issue of Jewish Action has a section on “out of town” communities. They asked me to write an article on building a college campus community. It’s a short piece, but I managed to make some points while also sneaking in some veiled cynicism.
Most recently, I reviewed Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land for Commentary. It is very exciting for me to be published in such a venerable and well-regarded magazine. Hopefully this is not the last time. The review is paywalled, but one blogger posted a fairly extensive excerpt.
A few articles I translated have appeared as well: some of R. Dr. Avie Walfish’s recently posted material on Mishna Mo’ed and an important article by R. Eliezer Melamed on domestic partnerships and Jewish marriage in Israel. You may have also noticed that the Jordan Valley has been in the news a lot lately, in context of the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the PA. I’ve been helping my sister, Elana Diner, with her blog about life in the Jordan Valley called “(Jordan) Valley Girl.”  Check it out!

It’s Tu Bi-Shvat in less than a week. To help you prepare, take a look at an article I wrote last year and a Tu Bi-Shvat “Haggadah” that I compiled a few years ago, which divides the “Seder” by time period.


Maran zt"l

If the present torrent of articles and retrospectives about Maran Ovadia Yosef continues for another year, we will still not have anything close to a full picture of the man. They will still be writing about him in a thousand years.

Some of the articles have been excellent. Some less so. Most at least granted that his enduring greatness was in the realm of Torah and halakha, and while they did not ignore his notorious outbursts, they saw it as part of a much greater whole. My own attempt to capture what I can in 800 words will appear in this week's Jewish Week. As an organizing device, I look at three distinct meanings of the term "ga'on" and apply each of them to Maran.

The crush of people at the levaya was suffocating, the eulogizers were barely audible from where I was, cell service in Ge'ulah was not quite ready for half a million people, many of whom were taking pictures, etc. Yet I am glad I could go and I'm glad my son Rafi (9) was able to come with me. It was a lesson in kevod ha-Torah that we may never see the likes of again. That is why I wanted my son to be there with me.

Last I spoke to Rav Benny Lau, we were trying to convince a publisher to commit to a translation of R. Benny's biblio-biography of Rav Ovadia, Mi-Maran ad Maran. The publisher's concern is that there will not be much of an audience in English. I'm considering launching a kickstarter campaign to raise the money for the project. Would you buy the book? Would you contribute to the campaign?


Ironic Orthodoxy and Other Notes on the Pew Study

Several years ago, I posited the existence of an emerging group that I called "Ironic Orthodox." I characterized this group as being quite comfortable within Orthodoxy, but largely non-ideological, even skeptical of systematic ideologies. Later, I posited that this group tends to welcome non-observant Jews into their communities without judging and without a hidden kiruv agenda. I noted that this could be discerned a little bit among members of my generation (I was born in 1976) but to a greater degree among those who came of age after the turn of the millennium. That is, my wife and I noticed that this type of attitude was more typical of our students than our peers.

I think the data contained in the new Pew study bears this out. This has to be qualified by a caveat. Whereas the overall snapshot of American Judaism is large enough to be statistically meaningful, once we start looking at cross sections like Modern Orthodox Jews between the ages of 30 and 49, the sample sizes become much, much smaller and their predictive value wanes significantly. Only 154 Modern Orthodox Jews (the segment I'm most interested in, for obvious reasons) TOTAL were surveyed, further divided into 4 age cohorts. Unsurprisingly, the largest margins of error pertain to the Orthodox (p. 119 of the study). Some of the results simply scream "small sample size." So I'm taking a lot of these observations with a grain of salt, especially when broken down by age cohort.

If you haven't yet seen Alan Brill's observations on the study, that's the place to start. A good part of his discussion centers on the graph about Orthodox retention rates:
A lot of hay is being made from the increase in retention rates (though some are simply looking at Orthodoxy's 48% retention rate as a static figure). From 22% retention among the Jews of the Silent Generation to 83% among GenY/Z. As the survey (and BZ) notes, it's possible that this doesn't reflect a generational shift but a steady attrition rate from Orthodoxy throughout life. And yet, I find it difficult to believe that 19% of dropouts from Orthodoxy leave after they turn 65.

The more significant data comes from what lies below the top line (and hopefully Pew will give us the tools to drill down even more specifically). Forget about the % of dropouts and look at where they went. Specifically, look at whether they joined another denomination, or became "non" (non-denominational, non-religious, or non-Jewish). Among those age 65+, a solid majority (58%) joined another denomination. 19% went "non." In subsequent generations, you have something of an ebb and flow with regard to becoming "non" - 32% of Boomers, 26% of GenXers, and 16% of Millennials. I can't really explain the spike in conversion out of Judaism amongst ex-Orthodox Boomers or the spike in non-denominational affiliation among ex-Orthodox GenXers (when nobody left Judaism completely, apparently). It's strange and non-linear, and I suspect that it is statistical noise.

When it comes to joining other denominations, though, the decline is linear and consistent. And astounding. From 58% among the Silents to 28% of Boomers to 17% of GenXers to 1% of Millennials. You want to know why the ranks of Conservative Judaism are shrinking, it's because they are no longer picking up Orthodox dropouts in any significant numbers. This passes the eye-test as well. I was a college campus rabbi at the school that gets more day school grads than any other outside of New York. I know plenty of Orthodox dropouts, and very few of them joined other denominations.

Orthodox retention does not necessarily imply greater observance among young Orthodox Jews. Rather, as I speculated in the aforementioned posts, Orthodox Jews who leave observance are remaining, by and large, within the Orthodox orbit. They are the analogue of the Israeli datlashim who, as the saying goes, "want their kids to be ex-Orthodox like them."

We would thus expect that younger Orthodox-raised Jews, though more likely to remain Orthodox, are less religiously observant than their parents. Unfortunately, there were very few specific questions about religious practice, and what we have is not segmented by age and denomination (hopefully they'll publish tools to rectify that), so it is impossible to prove my hypothesis. The closest we get is 17% of Modern Orthodox saying they do not keep a kosher home (that is well beyond "eat fish out" Orthodoxy) and 19% handling money. [While it's a neat theory, I do not accept BZ's contention that this jarring statistic about money on Shabbat is the result of misunderstanding the question, which contained a double negative. 19% of Modern Orthodox answered the question thus, and Modern Orthodoxy is the best-educated segment of the Jewish population according to the survey.]

This increase in Orthodox non-observance is not an anomaly. Outside of the US, Canada, and perhaps Argentina, Orthodoxy is the default expression of Judaism, and a wide spectrum of observance is tolerated and expected. It was the norm in the US as well until the post-WWII migration to suburbia. I believe we are witnessing the beginning of a shift back to an American Orthodoxy that tolerates non-observance. It does not bode well for other denominations.

Some other notes on the study:
  • Modern Orthodoxy has emerged as an elitist movement. It accounts for 3% of American Judaism, but it is the best-educated and has the highest percentage of high-income earners. Its adherents are most likely to understand that Judaism is BOTH ethnicity AND religion (a more sophisticated and correct understanding of the reality). No group puts more of a premium on ethical life, intellectual curiosity, Israel, or community. In the aggregate, Modern Orthodox espouses more "essentials" of Jewish identity than any other segment, and it is not even that close. It is clear that a multiplicity of emphases and core values is characteristic of Modern Orthodoxy (p. 57). As we know, it is hard to balance so many essential values. So you might expect this segment to be small but high-achieving. This, of course, is a double-edged sword.
  • There were a few cases where the question and the analysis are incompatible. For example, there was a series of questions to the effect of, "Are you still Jewish if you X?" In the analysis, it was posited as "is being Jewish compatible with X?" These questions only make sense if you presume Judaism to be a religion, not an ethnic/national/cultural identity. Obviously belief in Jesus is incompatible with being Jewish in the religious sense, but one who believes in Jesus can still be a Jew. These questions are thus simply restatements of the question about whether Judaism is a religion or a culture.
  • Thus, Ultra-Orthodoxy, the segment most likely to view Judaism solely as a religion, deviates from everyone else when it comes to "work on Shabbat" being incompatible with being Jewish. Ultra-Orthodox seem to be most willing to consider someone non-Jewish for a particular belief or practice. Interestingly, Ultra-Orthodoxy has highest % of those who say being critical of Israel is incompatible with being Jewish. (Ultra-Orthodoxy and Reform have a similar % on that question, as do Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative). That said, the two segments of Orthodox Jews are most likely to think that believing Jesus is the Messiah is compatible with being Jewish. So even within Ultra-Orthodoxy you have a significant number who believe that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew (Yisrael af al pi she-chata).
  • Another confusion exists where a question asks about denominational identification, but the results and analysis speak of affiliation. Identification and affiliation are very different things. As BZ points out, there are lots of people who identify as Reform Jews who do not affiliate with Reform institutions. I would contend that there are also significant numbers of people who affiliate with Orthodox institutions who do not consider themselves Orthodox Jews. In fact, the term Orthodox is an exonym, as internally we talk about "frum" and "Shomer Shabbos." That is, orthodoxy does not view itself as a denomination (and I suspect that some of the non-denominational "just Jews" in the survey are frum). There's a lot more to say about identity vs. affiliation (particularly, I can affiliate without pigeonholing my "identity"). Perhaps another time, when I can convince someone to pay me for writing about it.
  • Jews of no religion are consistently called secular and cultural Jews. These categories exist, but I think that most of these folk are ethnic Jews. Ethnicity implies both culture and lineage, and is a good descriptor of what many American Jews are.
  • Time for a fast break of interesting tidbits gleaned from the study:
    • Only MO truly believes that the Israeli government is making sincere peace overtures.
    • There are an estimated 5.7 million halakhic Jews in the US, of whom 4.4 million identify as Jewish.
    • On a related note, there are twice as many out-converts as in-converts. Such is the life of a minority culture. 
    • Among Jews age 50 and under, Orthodox and Conservative are virtually neck and neck in terms of numbers. Among Jews over 50, there are three times as many Conservative Jews as there are Orthodox Jews. 
    • The growth of Orthodoxy is attributable almost entirely to the growth of Ultra-Orthodoxy.
    • Only 1% of Jews in their 20s are Modern Orthodoxy.That doesn't make sense. Small sample size, I suppose.
    • More Christians than Conservative Jews believe that God gave Israel to the Jewish people. It's close, though. Reform is not close.
    • College attendance doesn't significantly correlate with attitudes toward Israel. So much for that myth. 
    • For Modern Orthodox, the most widely accepted essentials of Jewish identity are, in descending order: Ethical life, Israel, Jewish law, Holocaust, community, justice/equality, intellectual curiosity, food, sense of humor.
      For Ultra-Orthodox: Jewish law, ethical life, community, Holocaust, food, justice/equality, Israel, humor, intellectual curiosity. The biggest difference is that Ultra Orthodoxy bumps Israel down and bumps food up.
    • 2/3 of Ultra Orthodox say they can converse in Hebrew. Not buying it.
    • Orthodoxy outpaces others in terms of donations, memberships, Hebrew literacy, education, etc. No surprises there.
    • In favor of accepting homosexuality: Ultra Orthodox: 20%, Modern Orthodox:  50%, Conservative: 80%. Those numbers work out pretty neatly.
    • 81% of Modern Orthodox Jews attend religious services at least monthly, as opposed to 71% of Ultra Orthodox Jews. That's because, as every frum Jew knows, Ultra Orthodox women tend not to go to shul.
    • Roughly the same percentage of Modern Orthodox, Ultra Orthodox, and Reform Jews attended non-Jewish religious services last year. But when it comes to Christmas trees, 4% of Orthodox have them, (really?) and 30% of Reform.
    • More Jews by religion (43%) thnk humor is important than Jews of no religion. Is it possible they were joking?