Writings and Talks on Religion and State in Israel

Elazar Stern's Conversion Bill: Bad for Religion, Bad for the State, Bad at Math (Mida; Hebrew version)

The Barkan Wine Controversy: Ugly Precedent or Healthy Sign? (NYJW)

Interview with Israel's Channel 2 News

The Israeli Rabbinate: The Origin Story (Moment)

Love, Marriage, and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate (Jewish Ideas Daily)

Regime Change, Realpolitik, and the Rabbanut (NYJW)

Orthodox Rabbis for Civil Marriage in Israel (NYJW)

A Jewish Holiday and a Civic Dilemma (IJN/ TOI)


New Publication in honor of my son becoming a bar mitzvah

My older son will become a bar mitzvah on Sunday, and he will mark the occasion with a siyum on all 6 orders of the Mishnah. In honor of the occasion, we have published a booklet containing Masekhet Kinim and three commentaries on it:

  1. A Tosafist commentary (possibly R. Samson of Sens [=Rash MiShantz])
  2. A short commentary by R. Yitzhak Aizik of Komarno
  3. Moshe Koppel's mathematical commentary.
Here is the title page:

If you would like to download the entire booklet, you can request access at this link.


Praying at the Grave of Franz Rosenzweig

This past February, I had the chance to visit the grave of Franz Rosenzweig in Frankfurt--not a pilgrimage site, but a place I was drawn to nonetheless. A week later, I was invited to join the editorial board of a project named for his adult education initiative, The Lehrhaus.

Fast forward a few months, and the site is ready to launch. To mark the launch, which coincides with the Yamim Nora'im, I imagine a prayer that I might have recited at Rosenzweig's grave.

Read about it here: http://www.thelehrhaus.com/commentary-short-articles/grave-franz-rosenzweig


On “Hard” and “Soft” Charisma in Jewish Education: Toward a Taxonomy of Risk

Meir Pogrow is but the latest in a long list of charismatic rabbis and Jewish educators who fell from grace when the world finally learned how they manipulated students emotionally in order to take advantage of them sexually—a list that includes Baruch Lanner, Motti Elon, Marc Gafni, and others. 

Obtaining sexual favors certainly ranks as one of the worst misuses of charisma, but it is not the only misuse. In 2006, Paul Shaviv first posted the draft (in a series of comments on a post by Gil Student, later posted in full on several blogs; now in book form) of an essay profiling “Pied Piper” educators. 

Among the dangers he points out are:
  • A charismatic teacher will deeply affect and influence some students, but will almost always leave a trail of emotional wreckage in his/her wake.
  • The emotional dependency and entanglement between teacher and student leads to boundaries being crossed.
  • The teacher becomes party to knowledge about students and their families that reinforces the teacher’s view that they are the only teachers who ‘really’ are reaching the students. The teacher, however, is neither a trained counselor nor a social worker. That knowledge becomes power.
  • A really charismatic teacher can end up running a ‘school within a school’. 
  • The teacher will often employ techniques (and texts) which take students to the extremes of emotion or logic, and will then triumphantly show them how they are holding they key to resolution (‘At this moment, you have agreed that life has no meaning -- but here is the answer’).
  • The moment [the students] realize that they are not [protégés] (sometimes when the teacher ‘moves on to the next’), deep emotions come into play.
  • Many charismatic teachers will lavish attention on a student or group of students as long as the student(s) do things the teacher’s way, or accept every piece of advice or ‘philosophy’ or Torah uncritically. The moment the student shows independence or objectivity, they are dropped.
  • As soon as they are disillusioned or dropped, they are written out of the teacher’s story. Often such students, very hurt, leave the school.
Perhaps the most fundamental point in Shaviv’s critique is: “The problem is that at core, these are not educational relationships.” Charisma in general is a deeply problematic and risky trait in a teacher of Torah, as, by definition, the student is attracted more to the charm and personality of the teacher than to the material that is being taught. 
The unfortunate reality is that each of the offenders mentioned above used deeply problematic methods long before there was any general awareness of the sexual aspect of their predations. This point was articulated well by Shayna Goldberg:

This is the real issue that has plagued my mind for so long. The fact that this man was never, ever fit to be an educator. The fact that knowing all the Torah in the world does not on its own make you trustworthy enough to be given a classroom’s worth of young, impressionable souls. The fact that long before anyone suspected inappropriate sexual behavior, it was glaringly clear that this person employed all kinds of unhealthy teaching methods in order to cultivate relationships with students. And the fact that no one but a few innocent teenage girls seemed to notice.
She concludes:

I hope that in the wake of this scandal, we don’t just talk about one outed, sick educator and then move on as if everything were okay. Let us not get so distracted by the outrageous details that we forget what was so grossly inexcusable about his conduct as a teacher, even had he never touched anyone….
Let’s talk about it.

Indeed, let us talk about the role of charisma in our educational system. Let us discuss whether there is such a thing as “good” or “safe” charisma (I am skeptical, but realize that I’m still in the minority); how a school, parents, and/or students can learn to recognize subtle warning signs; and—to paraphrase Rabbi Noam Stein of the Akiva School in Detroit—whether and how young charismatic teachers can be trained to use their talents in an educationally safe and sound manner. 
There are three or four basic categories of charismatic teacher. The first is comprised of cases where the teacher has clearly crossed a line into psychological, physical, and/or sexual abuse, as in the cases mentioned at the beginning of this column. The second category is one where certainly no crime or abuse has taken place, but the techniques used by the teacher are unhealthy and unsound. 
The third category is teachers who use charisma to manipulate students, but to positive effect. I am skeptical about the existence of this category, but many students of Rabbi Aharon Bina would vehemently contend that he fits this category, and that, indeed, he changed their lives for the better by breaking them down and building them back up. There is no doubt that R. Bina’s methods cause considerable damage as well. Is it possible to fashion a situation in which all such collateral damage will be eliminated? Perhaps, but I am skeptical.

The final category is “soft charisma,” a term I first heard in the name of Rabbi Menachem Schrader, the founding director of OU-JLIC (and thus my former boss), and which he uses to describe the educators he seeks for his program. He explained that, as opposed to “hard charisma,” in the case of “soft charisma,” the educator never becomes more central to the experience than the Torah that s/he is teaching.

In 2010, in the wake of the Motti Elon scandal, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership explained why this distinction is so crucial: the Torah develops the self. Hard charisma effaces the students’ sense of self and replaces it with the teacher’s “self.” The difference between soft and hard charisma is thus the difference between developing the student’s sense of self—and distorting it.

The problem is that is it not always easy to differentiate hard and soft charisma. Building off of R. Klapper’s essay, the following is a preliminary taxonomy for identifying charisma and its dangerous manifestations. It goes without saying that teachers and students, and especially administrators and parents, must be vigilant even about “soft” forms of charisma, lest boundaries be crossed. “Failing” one of these tests should not automatically brand the teacher as a dangerous charismatic, but failure of multiple tests should raise red flags.
  •  Charismatic energy is easily transformed into eros, so any sort of physical contact or seclusion is a breach that warrants dismissal for a first or (at most) second offense.
  • Does the teacher seek to persuade the student to see value in what the teacher values, or to persuade the student to see value only in what the teacher values?
  • Is the teacher replacing the student’s friends?
  • Has the student begun to imitate the teacher’s idiosyncratic practices and mannerisms?
  • Is the student able to restate the teacher’s views in his own words and defend them without falling back on “but my teacher said”?
  • What is the ratio of content to unmoored emotion in a teacher’s “inspirational” talks? Can the talks or lessons be quantified in terms of thinking, textual, or interpersonal skills, or only (or mostly) in terms of emotion and inspiration?
  • How does the teacher respond to a student who questions, challenges, or rejects his/her assertions?
  • How has the student’s relationship with his/her parents changed since s/he first came under the teacher’s influence?
Charisma is attractive and even tempting. It sometimes seems as though a life of virtue, or spirit, or value is immediately attainable, but, to quote a great rabbi (who had a great deal of soft charisma), “There are no shortcuts. Ein patentim.” Education is a long and arduous process, and the voice of God is not in the earthquake, the great gust, or the fire, but in the still, small voice.


ICYMI: A conversation about Jewish Presence on the Temple Mount

Over the past week, I had the privilege of hosting a conversation with Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, Rabbi Yehudah Glick, and Professor Shaul Magid on my TOI blog, using the ReplyAll platform.

The conversation is now closed. I am reposting it below.


The Brilliance of Bibi's Big Lie: A Dramatization

Scene: Bibi’s office. In attendance are Prime Minister Netanyahu and everyone who would be played by a main character in an Israeli version of "The WestWing" (which would be called "The Aquarium"): media advisers, speechwriters, PR gurus, pollsters, etc.

Bibi: We’re three weeks into this new uprising and the world media narrative is all about how Palestinian violence is terrible but understandable given the Occupation™. We need to show that the occupation is the result of violence, not the other way around. How do we do it?

Speechwriter: We tell the truth. The truth is on our side. Their leaders lie about Jewish connection to holy sites. They lie about Ashkenazic Jews coming here as colonialist occupiers. They lie about and deny the Holocaust. About poisoning the wells. About defiling the Temple Mount with our filthy feet. They say Jesus was a Palestinian. Let them bury themselves with lies. We need to stay on message with the truth. Haters will hate.

Bibi: Who do you think you’re talking to? When I was Ambassador to the UN, I used to give these history lessons all the time. I was Mr. Context. Mr. Nuance. But it doesn’t work. Not anymore. Their lies are now presented as a side of the story, one that we have to refute.

Media Adviser: Correct. The news cycle is fast and fickle. Media outlets need click-bait. Truth, especially complicated truth, doesn’t attract eyeballs. Forget about history lessons.

Speechwriter: So we lose the media and keep the truth. Let’s stay on the high ground.

Pollster: What high ground? The media is a real battlefield today. World leaders are constrained by public opinion. If you can win public opinion, it gives your allies much more freedom and shackles your opponents. Look at Obama. There was only a certain amount of leeway he had to act against us, because American public opinion is on our side. In contrast, Sisi can’t say what he really thinks of us because public opinion is so poisoned against us.

Bibi: Agreed. But what are our options? There are a dozen groups who exist to call out the lies and inaccuracies of the media against Israel. CAMERA, HonestReporting, CIFWatch, etc. How many editions of Myths and Facts have been published? But they’re playing defense. Our enemies still control the discourse. We need to stop getting bogged down in arguments within their frame of reference. How can we play offense?

PR Guru: Talk about the Mufti.

Media Adviser: Who?

Bibi: Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. He was behind the Arab uprisings in 1920-21, he was behind the massacres in 1929, and he was behind the Arab Revolt in the 1930s, which closed the door to immigration to Mandatory Palestine just before World War II. He was behind the Farhud in Baghdad in 1941. Then he fled to Germany, where he was a guest of Hitler for the rest of the war.

PR Guru: A very bad dude, and a Palestinian founding father. If we can draw attention to him, it totally undermines the narrative that violence is the result of the occupation. He was hobnobbing with Hitler before there was a State of Israel.

Pollster: Still, too much information for the average consumer of the news. Dates, numbers, all just bugs crawling across a screen.

Media Adviser: Any pictures?

PR Guru: Yeah. There’s one of him with Hitler. There’s one of him with other high-ranking Nazis. No shortage.

Bibi: That’s the angle. We need to get that picture out there. A leading Palestinian cozying up to Hitler before there was a State of Israel.

Media Adviser: Not so simple. What are we supposed to do, send a photo of the Mufti and Hitler to all the newspapers? He’s old news. He needs to be in today’s news.

Speechwriter: What if we drop his name in a speech in English? It’ll make the newspapers.

Media Adviser: Maybe the Israeli and Jewish media. Everyone else will just ignore it or bury it. There’s no meat. Nothing to really capture the world’s attention.

PR Guru: We need to overstate the case. We need to tell a lie that will provoke reaction, that will get everyone to “set the record straight” about the Mufti.

Pollster: But it needs to be sticky. We need people to remember in a month that the Mufti is a really bad dude, but there’s disagreement about just how bad. That’s got to be the residue that’s left over in people’s minds.

Media Adviser: Especially if that picture gets out. People will remember that he had something to do with Hitler, even if they don’t remember what.

PR Guru: Great. We’re in agreement. What’s the lie that we tell?

Bibi: We tell them that the Mufti convinced Hitler to kill the Jews.

Speechwriter: With all due respect, Mr. Prime Minister, that’s insane. You will be a laughingstock. Everyone will say you’re a liar or an idiot.

Pollster: They’ll spin it against you. They’ll say that you absolved Hitler from the crime of murdering six million Jews. That you trivialize or deny the Holocaust.

Media Adviser: The memes will be flying around the internet.

Bibi: What’s a meme?

Media Adviser: Something like this.

Bibi: That’s pretty funny.

Media Adviser: Hilarious. But you will be the butt of thousands of these jokes.

Bibi: As you said, though, the news cycle is quick. I can take a round of jokes at my expense. I can clarify that Hitler is to blame for the actual killing. But what are the strategic implications? What will we lose, what will we gain?

Pollster: You won’t lose much in the polls. Haters will hate, and I don’t think you’ll lose much support. They’ll say it was a stupid gaffe and move on.

Media Adviser: It will change the discourse on the violence. People will remember, if nothing else, that Palestinian violence and opposition to the Jewish state predates any occupation. It will put the Palestinian leadership on the defensive for the first time I can remember.

Bibi: And what about my credibility? This is a major strategic shift we’re talking about. It means no one will ever trust us again. 

Speechwriter: And the Holocaust... I mean, falsifying Holocaust history is dangerous.

Bibi: I'm not talking about school curricula. I'm talking about what to say to the media. What you tell the media is not what you tell your kids. I'm not advocating a complete abandonment of the truth.

Speechwriter: I'm not comfortable with this.

Pollster: There’s a risk. No question. On the other hand, you’d be amazed at the degree to which supporters overlook the flaws of their favored candidates and magnify the flaws in the ones they don’t like. It’s crazy. You’d think they’d realize by now that the vast majority of politicians are borderline sociopathic. But no.

PR Guru: Look, everything you say is filtered through the media anyway, and they’re understandably not credible. People pick their news sources based on what they want to hear. If someone looks to the media, any media, for truth, they get what they deserve. And that’s the overwhelming majority of people. All we’re doing is getting the media to tell the lie that we want them to tell instead of the one that they would tell otherwise.

Media Adviser: Look, if we tell the truth, they respond with lies. If we lie, they'll respond with truth or lies. We can still respond to their lies with truth, but honestly, nobody knows the difference anymore, anyway. And there’s also the truthiness factor.

Bibi: The what?

Media Advisor: Truthiness. The quality of feeling true even if it isn’t. The word comes from Colbert, the American comedian, but it’s basically driving American politics right now. Take Trump. His overall message resonates with people, and they don’t care about details, accuracy, reasonability, etc.

Speechwriter: That blathering idiot?

Media Adviser: That blathering idiot is a juggernaut who might be the next POTUS. If you read the Dilbert Blog, you’d also know that he’s a genius.

Bibi: I don’t want to be compared to Trump.

PR Guru: You won’t be. He’s an extreme case. But there’s value in taking notes from a master. He absolutely dominates coverage of the 2016 elections.

Bibi: Okay. And what about our relationship with the PA? Long-term damage?

Speechwriter: Actually, it can advance your overall vision. You’ve said time and again that peace can only come with mutual recognition of each other's claim to the land, and that any two state solution has to acknowledge that Israel is the state that embodies the self-determination of the Jewish people, just as the Palestinian state will be the nation-state of the Palestinian people. A major obstacle to that is this notion that we’re foreign occupiers with no connection to the land. Attention to the Mufti will help marginalize that narrative, which, after all, was propagated by a Nazi.

Bibi: Interesting. I like it. When’s my next scheduled major English speech?

Media Adviser: World Zionist Congress on Tuesday, October 22.

Bibi: Draft the speech. Plant the bombshell in it. Then, gentlemen, we will sit back and watch as the whole world acquaints itself with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.


A Note on the Khazar-origin Theory of Hungarian Jewry

An advantage of davening in a minyan in a local yeshiva is that you never know what seforim might turn up or what you might find in them.
This past Shabbat I found a copy of Mateh Levi (it's a bit different from the standard printed volume; much fewer responsa). This book, which is mainly about writing Gittin but also contains responsa on all sorts of issues, was written by R. Dr. Mordechai (Markus) Halevi Horovitz, a Hungarian rav who eventually became the rabbi of general (i.e., non-secessionist) Orthodox community in Frankfurt (or Vrankvurt, as it is spelled in this book). That is, he was a rival and critic of RSR Hirsch.
As you can see from the stamp, this particular volume, printed in 1891, belonged to the library of the Berlin Jewish community. There are actually stamps indicating that it was checked out of that library several times in the early 1920s. It eventually found its way to the yeshiva high school in Modiin, where I peruse it on Shabbat.
The first responsum begins with a question from R. Asher Grossberg of Eszlar. 
R. Asher begins the query by reintroducing himself, reminding R. Horowitz that they studied together in Ujhely (a major Hungarian yeshiva) and met again at the famed Jewish Congress that took place in the winter of 1868-9. He also mentions that R. Horovitz was then working on a treatise to prove that Hungarian Jews are descendants of the Khazars.
That may be surprising, so a bit of background. When the Dual Monarchy was established in 1867, Hungarians became a minority within their own kingdom. To help alleviate that, they extended full civil rights to the Jews, on condition that the Jews would declare "Magyar" (=Hungarian) as their nationality. The Jews, by and large, saw the opportunity and went along with it. Some, like R. Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, were strongly opposed, maintaining that this is a betrayal of Jewish nationhood (he was a Haredi and a Zionist, by any definition of either). Eventually, it became popular to claim that Hungarian Jews were descendants of the Khazars who migrated westward along with the other Hungarian tribes in the Middle Ages - that is, that Hungarian Jews are indeed as Hungarian as any Hungarian.
It is surprising to me that such theories were being propounded by respected rabbanim so soon after the process of Magyarization began.
To dispel doubt: I do not believe that Hungarian Jews, or any other Jews, are the descendants of the Khazars, nor do I believe that there was ever a mass conversion of Khazars to Judaism.


Ritvas on Eidus and Briskers on Gittin...

Ritvas on Eidus and Briskers on Gittin,
Threats, bans, and cherems, both oral and written
Trashing the arguments each rabbi brings
These are a few of my favorite things...

Cream colored parchment for writs of divorces
Snow jobs and flame wars and broadsides remorseless
High moral ground to which ev’ryone clings
These are a few of my favorite things

Girls in white dresses who might still be married
Rabbis who don't speak their minds cuz they're harried
Comment threads spurred on by violent mood swings
These are a few of my favorite things.

It’s our mission
It’s tradition
Though it seems arcane
I have expertise in my favorite things
So women can be unchained.