6/28/2007

Kol Castrato

If you haven’t heard yet, there has been a furor recently over the refusal of certain Hareidio stations to play the music of a young male vocalist from Netanya whose voice sounds very feminine. Gil discussed the issue from a halakhic perspective. I would add another issue to the mix – what if the singer is a gender-reassigned man, such as Israeli singer Dana International. If it’s an issue of an ‘intrinsic’ issur, then there should be no problem (unless you hold like the Tzitz Eliezer that gender reassignment actually changes the halachically-recognized gender as well). If it’s about hirhurim (sorry, Gil), then it should be prohibited.

The current situation is indeed laughable. At an earlier time, I may have gotten bent out of shape about it, but now I just think it’s comical. It’s almost like I’m watching a different religion. Maybe I am.

The issue has come up before in jest. R’ Zev Leff, a very popular Rav and lecturer in the English-speaking community in Israel (and who was recently honored by the OU Israel Center), currently has some sort of condition in his vocal cords which make his voice sound falsetto – you can hear it in one of his shiurim here. Although he normally leads several tefillot from the amud in Moshav Matityahu, this year he begged off because of his condition, saying in jest that it would be Kol Isha.

Of course, there used to be an entire class of men whose voices were engineered to sound feminine – the castrati – although many insist that their voices had a quality that was sui generic. It is no longer legal to engineer castrati. The last castrato lived long enough to make recordings. You can judge for yourselves how feminine he sounds here and here. I wonder if there are any teshuvot about listening to castrati sing.

The issue of recorded Kol Isha can itself be deconstructed out of existence. First of all, as this whole issue shows, there are women (like Cher) who sound like men, and men who sound like women. Furthermore, voices can be digitally altered to sound deeper or higher. At what point does the voice cease to be the woman’s voice? Other than a live performance (or, as many contemporary responsa rule, a recording where the listener can recognize the voice of the woman), it would seem that there is no issue of Kol Isha. That’s my take, anyway.

6/26/2007

As Israel Prospers, Some Fear Its Defenses May Grow Soft - WSJ.com

Check out: As Israel Prospers, Some Fear Its Defenses May Grow Soft - WSJ.com

There's a box with a statistic stating that of Israel's 6 wealthiest cities, Modiin has the highest rate of army service and the highest rate of soldiers in combat units. This is a chiddush for two reasons:
1) It's very impressive that the stats in Modiin are so high. I'm not sure why that is, but it fits the profile of the people - religious and secular - that I've met. It could be a result of the high percentage of army personnel that lives in Modiin. It could be the result of the inclusion of Re'ut, which historically takes pride in the number of pilots it produces. The high combat numbers - along with Ra'anana - might be an indication that there's a large numebr of religious soldiers. Religious soldiers tend to gravitate toward combat units, especially infantry, tanks, and artillery. Modiin and Raanana have the highest % of religious people amongst the 6 cities mentioned. If we keep sending our kids to little league, maybe the trend will continue (the Miracle crushed the Pioneers on opening day).
2) I didn't know that Modiin was one of Israel's wealthiest cities. It makes sense, though. Modiin was 'manufactured' in the last decade for middle-income/upper-middle-income families. There are no real 'poor' parts of Modiin. You may not have the fantastic wealth of a Herzliya, but there's not much poverty either. Contrast that with Jerusalem, where you have fabulous wealth and abject poverty living side by side. It's both the wealthiest and poorest city in Israel.

6/18/2007

Parade Pashkevil (UPDATED)


Somebody has quite a sense of humor.
Translation:
Will the Shofar Sound in the City and the People not Tremble (yechredu)?
Gevalt! Against Incitement and Hatred!
May God have mercy on our brothers who incite to hatred, who are like captive children, who spread rumors about their brothers and speak poorly of them
Why was the Second Temple destroyed?
Because there was baseless hatred!
We will come in our masses, with women and children, with our banner of love, to the large, peaceful, honorable, and democratic march against incitement and terror, opposed to baseless hatred against the minority which incites to violence and other extremists
Because hatred is a dangerous and contagious disease
Let us demonstrate that Judaism is not Fascism and that Kiddush Hashem is not a call for blood!
Come out in droves this Thursday, the 5th of Tamuz (June 21 by their count) at 5PM in everybody's holy city, Jerusalem
Tune into the Media for Updates
Citizens for an Egalitarian, Sane Israel

6/14/2007

Goin’ Camping

This will most probably be my last post for a little while. We’re packing it up and leaving for the States on Motza”sh. We’ll be spending the next 2 months at Camp Moshava (Indian Orchard, Honesdale, PA). When we return, our first year of Aliyah will be over. Good bye and good riddance, I say. This was a very hard year professionally. If I tally it up, I probably had 10-12 different employers variously over the course of the year, not including special projects, and it was not enough. Next year will hopefully be much more stable.

So if you’re in Moshava for whatever reason, come say hello (except for on or immediately after July 21, when I’ll be totally absorbed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) – preorder here if you haven’t yet).

Also, you may want to check out the Israel housing fair in the NY-NJ area next week. Dunno a thing about it, but you might be able to get a good idea of what’s out there. And there’s a lot out there.

A final thing. The seminary where I’ll be mashgiach ruchani next year has asked me to compile a list of seforim we’ll need in the Beit Midrash. What is essential for a seminary Beit Midrash (aside from the essentials – chumash, nach, Rambam, gemara)? Let’s hear.

6/13/2007

The Antinomian Wife

In honor of the wife of On ben Pelet, who midrashically violated halakha in order to save her husband, I want to post some observations about my own wife’s antinomian tendencies (as an aside, I saw in one of the weekly Hebrew publications in shul this past Shabbat that the writer consistently misspelled ‘Pelet’ with a ‘tet’ instead of a ‘tav’; those of us who grew up on the Ashkenazis ‘On ben Peles’ would never make such a mistake).

It just so happens that every good Rebbetzin has antinomian tendencies le-chumra. We’ve all heard the story about the wife of [insert name of Litvishe gadol] who, brandishing the ever-fearsome holtzen leffel, chased her erudite husband out of the kitchen, screaming “YOU AND YOUR SHULCHAN ARUKH ARE GOING TO TRAYF UP ALL MY POTS”.

The idea is that these women generally have a more intuitive sense of what’s right and wrong, and often will not resort to halakhic codes in order to reach that determination. Call it ‘Torat imecha’ if you will; it is a very real phenomenon.

I will highlight this with two examples where my own ADDeRebbetzin reacted to a specific practice or ruling with visceral condemnation. The first is with regard to the burgeoning practice of women getting aliyot at what are being called ‘Egal-Orthodox’ or ‘Shira-Chadasha-Style’ minyanim. My reaction is to evaluate it on its halakhic merits and demerits. Hers is to condemn: “I don’t care what the halakha says; it’s just wrong.”

The second was with regard to former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu’s ruling that if it will protect Jewish lives, then it would be completely permissible to carpet-bomb the heck out of Gaza (though it seems that they really don’t need much help over there), even if it would mean a number of civilian casualties. Her reaction was equally visceral: “I don’t care if that’s what the halakha says; it’s just wrong.”

I wonder if Rebbetzin Eliyahu is screaming at her husband: “YOU AND YOUR SHULCHAN ARUKH ARE GOING TO PERPETRATE WAR CRIMES!

6/11/2007

Harav Shagar, z”l



Harav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) passed away last might at the age of 57, after a battle with illness. He was the head of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak, a Hesder Yeshiva in Efrat affiliated with Ohr Torah Institutions. The funeral is taking place as I write these words, and he will be laid to rest on Har Ha-Zeitim.

Rav Shagar was known as a very innovative Rosh Yeshiva. That he was one of the first to bring academic Talmud into the Beit Midrash masks the fact that his goal was for students to be able to “feel” the Gemara – to get at the ethics and values which underlie the sugya, that he was trying to find the soul of the text. In general, he brought a very personal type of spirituality into Torah study and personal development. His yeshiva was one of the first in the ‘kipa serugah’ world to incorporate elements of Chassidut, meditation, and introspection.

Several volumes of his works have been published. For the most part, they consist of lectures that he delivered in his yeshiva, which his students later reworked into book form. I own and have read part of the book ‘Keilim Shevurim’ (broken vessels). The book is exciting because it looks honestly at the at the postmodern condition as it relates to Israeli society and the ‘Dati Leumi’ community in particular, and sincerely attempts to construct a religious alternative within that world. It may be several generations before the mainstream catches up with him.

An article that Haaretz did on him a few years ago emphasized the fact that he did not allow politics to become a core part of his religious personality. He had his political views and opinions, and they may have even been informed by his religious sensibilities, but he adamantly refused, and considered it dangerous, to look at political dilemmas under the rubric of issur ve-hetter. See here and here for other English-language descriptions of his unique approach.

Yehi Zikhro Baruch.

6/10/2007

An Early ADDeRabbi?

I was not officially diagnosed with ADD until I was in my late 20s. Until then, I had unconsciously developed particular coping mechanism and forms of self-medication in order to get by. Until that point, I had been a student virtually all my life. Because of my ADD, I was never much one for lectures and shiurim, and to this day consider myself primarily an autodidact. I can read for extended periods of time, though I will inevitably need to switch what I’m reading in order to maintain interest and keep focus. Teachers rarely enjoyed having me in their classes, because inevitably I could not keep my mouth shut, and what made it worse was that I generally knew what I was talking about.

From the time I graduated high school, when I really began to study intensively, I developed a method of self-medication which I later found out is very typical of folks with undiagnosed ADD: caffeine. The ADD mind responds well to stimulants. ADD, the way I understand it, basically means that the part of the brain which decides which stimuli to respond to (deep limbic/prefrontal cortex) is underactive, which means that the brain allows too many stimuli through, pulling the person’s attention in many different directions and increasing impulsivity (and the more stimuli bombarding the brain, the greater the impulsivity). Stimulants help by allowing the brain to process the various stimuli more rapidly, decreasing the risk of impulsive reactions, irritability, and allowing the decision-making hub to prioritize tasks (there is a definite upside to ADD as well, which seems to go hand-in-hand with the downside, ve-acamo”l - see here).

For me, the preferred form of caffeine is carbonated cola beverages. I’ve been a Coke addict (Coca-cola, that is) – including other colas, Dr. Pepper, etc. – for almost 15 years. I’ve recently switched to diet (and dropped 15 lbs.), and have tried to cut back at times, with varying degrees of success.

Imagine my delight, then, when the ADDeRebbetzin showed be a paragraph from a book she’s reading called “Judaism and Drugs”, written by Rabbi Leo Landman and published in the early 1970s. He writes the following:

Rabbi Jacob Emden, an 18th Century sage, was known to drink tea as an anti-depressant. Emden was an unstable, highly explosive individual with deep-rooted physical and psychological problems. He seemed born to controversy and his psychological difficulties brought him to what he called “melancholy”. He searched for ease and resorted to the use of tea.

6/06/2007

Meraglim Meme

Nefesh B-Nefesh in encouraging its olim in honor of Parashat Shelach, to write lists of 12 great things about living in Israel . I thought it would be fun as a meme to spread around the Anglo-Israeli blogosphere (after I started composing this list this morning, I saw that it’s becoming all the rage and everybody’s doing it. And here I thought I was being original). Here goes. 12 great things about living in Israel, by myself and the ADDeRebbetzin:

1) Sukkot are as ubiquitous as Christmas trees

2) You can give your kid a Jewish education without having to feel like you’re not getting what you pay for

3) One day of Yom Tov – like it says in the Torah

4) The temporal rhythm is Jewish

5) Talking Torah with the security guards at the supermarket

6) Having kids with cute Israeli accents (shnee-tzell)

7) The Makolet (there’s really no English translation for ‘makolet’ into English; I once translated it for someone as ‘bodega’)

8) It’s one of the most literate societies on Earth (any ‘Hebrew Book Week’ starts tonight!)

9) The sheer volume of different Torah study opportunities

10) You can go for a walk from your house to an archaeological dig where Jews lived 2000 years ago (and more)

11) An amazingly high concentration of really interesting people

12) The society as a whole is truly family-focused.

I tag: bluke, Ben Chorin, balashon, Alex (whose wife works for NBN and should be ashamed that he hasn’t done this already ;-)

Also see:
And for something a bit different:
http://extremegh.blogspot.com/2007/06/12-reasons-not-to-live-in-israel.html

It's interesting t
o note which elements seem to recur.
Did I miss any
one?

6/03/2007

The RCA and the Rabbanut

I’m a few weeks off, but I wanted to discuss the ramifications of the RCA-Rabbanut agreement.

The first issue is internal to the RCA, and I think that the results are largely positive. The Regional Beit Din Network is a long-overdue idea which will hopefully achieve a balance between complete bureaucratization of giyur and complete decentralization. Local rabbanim will be able to recommend, or ‘sponsor’ potential geirim and to serve on Batie Din. At the same time, the regional batei din will have the final say over who is accepted.

Given that the RCA is an organization – really a confederation – which does not hire its members, there will of necessity be a system of checks and balances in place. Any regional Beit Din which becomes either too draconian or too liberal in its standards will end up being restructured. If all of the LORs aren’t happy, they will make their voices known.

For the same reason, RCA members will respect the Network. They know that regionalizing things can prevent a lot of the problems caused by conversions done by individual Rabbis; if these Rabbis ‘play ball’ with the regional batei din, then there is some quality control. If they don’t, then they further marginalize themselves and risk being regarded as unacceptable conversions in the mainstream of Modern Orthodoxy.

The regional batei din, by the very fact that they are under the auspices of different ga’avads, will have differing standards. One may emphasize Hilkhot Shabbat more, another taharat ha-mishpacha. But each will be respected enough amongst his peers – and if he’s not, he won’t last – for his geruyot to be acceptable.

The new arrangement will also be excellent for those who are regarded as being the fringe of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Rabbi of a “traditional” (orthodox liturgy, mixed seating) synagogue, or in a more contemporary setting, the Rabbi of a ‘Shirah Chadasha’ style minyan or the ever-controversial YCT musmakh will be able to sponsor a potential ger and work with them without having to enter into the extremely sticky question of “Who is an Orthodox Rabbi?”.

The fundamentally democratic nature of the American Rabbinate – the balabatim hire the Rabbis – insures that insures that Rabbanim will have a vested interest in maintaining a unified front. A Rabbi who breaks ranks – to the right or to the left – incurs serious professional risks. Therefore, when the RCA as a body signs an agreement, they can expect adherence from its members.

Of course, there will be cases where people fall through the cracks. There will be sincere gerim who are rejected by the regional Batei Din, and there will be insincere ones who pass through. That much is inevitable. The former scenario is difficult because it undermines the judgment of the sponsoring Rabbi, but, ultimately, that’s the reason for having a regional beit din in the first place. The standards themselves are, in my opinion, a very appropriate blend of yedi’at ha-halakha and good, old-fashioned common sense. It recognizes explicitly the role of the community in acculturating the ger to Jewish life paying specific attention to living within walking distance of a shul and sending kids to an Orthodox day school where available. These are not requirements that you will find in the Shulkhan Arukh, but they make all the sense in the world. The RCA standards also take what I think is a very sensible approach to havchanah. There are batei din out there who can be draconian when it comes to this requirement.

Enter the Rabbanut.

Israeli Rabbis – municipal Chief Rabbis and Dayanim – have what basically amount to lifetime political appointments. They can say what they want and do what they want without endangering themselves professionally. Many times, they act very irresponsibly (the most recent one that I heard was that a Rav, at a secular Bar Mitzvah, taught the halakha that if a Rabbi is drowning and one’s own father is drowning, it is incumbent to save the Rabbi. Aside from being halachically incorrect, it is so unbelievably insensitive and oblivious that it would probably warrant the immediate firing of a Rabbi whose balabatim have that power), or even corruptly. Even if they are not jerks, they have no reason or need to listen to the vox populi. Their jobs are secure no matter what.

Thus, you have a situation where there is little or no incentive for Rabbanut –affiliated Rabbis to adhere to an agreement that the Rabbanut makes. The recent story in Ashdod where a woman who converted 15 years ago with R’ Chaim Druckman, currently the head of the Conversion Authority and Rosh Yeshiva of Or Etzion (and a very mainstream figure in the dati le’umi world, for better or for worse), but whose conversion was retroactively annulled is an excellent case in point. There is no accountability for this type of behavior. There is no Rabbinic statute of limitations – a goy is always a goy, no?

Furthermore, one may be accepted by one Rabbi – an Oleh Chadash can get his or her brank-spanking-new ‘tooty zooty’ with the word ‘Yehudi’ proudly emblazoned upon it, but when it comes time to get married, or one’s kids to get married, then you are once again at the mercy of the local Rabbinate.

To give an example, I know from someone who works very closely with the Rabbanut on matters of Jewish status that there are senior members of the Jerusalem Beit Din for matters of giyur who would not accept a conversion done under the auspices of Rabbi Barry Freundel. Rabbi Freundel was the RCA’s chief negotiator and architect of the current agreement as the Chairman of the RCA’s Geirut Policies and Standards Task Force. He is the director of the Greater Washington regional Beit Din. On a personal note, I did one gerut with him and he approved three others that I did with other Rabbanim while I was living in his general area. He is very serious about the giyur process, even if, like any other ga’avad, he is more machmir in one area and more meikil in another.

The day before Rabbi Freundel met with Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar last summer, the latter was visited by senior members of that same Beit Din who tried to passul Rabbi Freundel by demonstrating that there is a Women’s Prayer Group under the auspices of his shul, and that this goes against the wishes of his own Rebbi, R’ Herschel Schechter. For those who are not aware, Rabbi Freundel is the Rav of Kesher Israel in Georgetown, Washington,DC. It is an extremely liberal crowd made of primarily singles and newlyweds. In matters like this, the Rav needs to know his kehilla well and respond to their needs in kind. I think that R’ Freundel’s respect amongst his peers speaks for itself about whether some of his more ‘liberal’ psakim have crossed any boundaries.

The attempt to discredit him then, and the refusal to accept his conversions if the issue arises in the future, was/will be made by a few individuals with a personal agenda. They may have their ‘mehalech’ in Hilchot Giyur, and that’s fine. The point of an agreement is that even if two individuals or groups have different methodologies or standards, each can rely on the other’s decisions as being a halachically sanctioned gerut.

Unfortunately, that is not what the RCA will be getting from the Rabbanut.

An Interesting Dilemma

I came across an interesting case in Halakhic literature, but I think it would be a fascinating application in American law. The scenario it the following:

A female death row inmate goes for her final medical check-up (as Sarah Tancredi put it, “We have to make sure you’re healthy when we kill you.”). The check-up yields the surprising result that this inmate, facing immediate death, is pregnant. What to do?

If one takes an extreme pro-life view, then executing this woman would mean executing the innocent fetus as well. The alternative is to delay the execution – which is itself debatably ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ – and if you throw in that the inmate would be forced to suffer the inhumanity of waiting to bring a child into this world only to have it taken away immediately, is almost an iron-clad case of cruel and unusual punishment. Thus, in this case, saving the fetus would probably save the inmate as well.

If one is pro-choice, it means that the fetus is fundamentally not treated as a human being. The health of the fetus, whether the inmate wishes to keep it or not, would not be able to delay the execution.

The interesting thing, of course, is that pro-life and pro-death penalty seem to be correlated, as to pro-choice and anti-capital punishment. Here’s a scenario where holding one generates a situation whereby one would violate the other.