November 17, 2018

Reclaiming Our Mystical Mojo on Shavuot

Rabbi Joseph Karo.

It is time to take back mysticism, and Shavuot is the perfect time to reclaim our mystical mojo.

Modern man has become skeptical and cynical. We demand evidence and logical arguments. Usually, that is a good thing, but without an unreasonable suspension of disbelief or religious imperative, modernity turns mysticism from inspiration into “fake news.”

There is a tradition to study Torah all night on Shavuot. The origins of this practice are cloaked in mysticism and mystery. Rabbis Joseph Karo and Shlomo Alkabetz lived in 16th century Safed, Israel, with a small group of dedicated disciples. Alkabetz, who composed “Lecha Dodi,” was an extraordinary poet and musician. He was pure soul. Karo, compiler of the “Shulchan Arukh” — Jewish Code of Law — was a halachist without peer. His study partner could only be an angel of God. Karo studied with an angel and he recorded their conversations in a book called “Maggid Meisharim.” Nobody knew about Karo’s special chavruta until Shavuot night 5733.

Karo and Alkabetz made a pact to study Torah for the entire night with their students, reverently chanting the holy words. At midnight, a disembodied voice began to speak through Karo:

“You are blessed in this world and the next word because of the crown you have returned to my head. Years ago, I was thrown into the garbage heap and my crown was taken from me. I was inconsolable but tonight you have restored my crown to its glory. Be strong! Be courageous, my loves! Rejoice and celebrate!”

Alkabetz understood this heavenly voice was Karo’s study partner.

Stories do not need to be true to inspire and invigorate us spiritually. They just need to be good.

After the monologue, the group studied mystical secrets of the Torah together with the voice. However, they were informed that they lacked a minyan (a quorum of 10 men), so they could not hear all the secrets of the Torah.

The group diligently completed their vigil of Torah study until morning. Three students missed the learn-a-thon because they went to sleep. When they heard the story, they were heartbroken. So they decided to do study for a second consecutive night.

On the second night, the voice did not wait until midnight. When the group began to study, the voice returned with more praise, love and insights. The angel said that on both nights, their Torah was able to touch God and hasten the redemption.

And so, a tradition was born.

Judaism ceded mysticism and mystery to the Charedim. Everyone else is a skeptic. But we all need the legends of the mystics in our Judaism. Stories do not need to be true to inspire and invigorate us spiritually. They just need to be good.

We need great stories like Karo and the voice of God on Shavuot night to inspire another 500 years of Judaism.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Beit Shemesh mayor condemns attack on woman for modesty

Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul condemned an attack on a woman by a haredi Orthodox man who accused her of not being dressed modestly enough.

Abutbul issued a statement Tuesday condemning the attack of last week.

“I strongly condemn this violent incident, something that is forbidden according to the law and according to the Torah,” Abutbul, of the Sephardic Orthodox  Shas party, said in the statement. “I have asked the chief of police in Beit Shemesh to strongly pursue this case. I also addressed the entire city police force and underlined my policy of zero tolerance to violence.”

The modern Orthodox  woman, who was with her 2-year-old daughter, was attacked at a bus stop in the haredi Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. The attacker shouted at her before the physical attack, she told a reporter for Israeli television’s Channel 2. The victim said she was wearing a skirt and had her hair covered.

She said no bystanders came to her aid and that her daughter was being treated for post traumatic stress disorder.

Beit Shemesh, a city about 20 miles west of Jerusalem, has seen conflict between haredi and non-haredi and secular residents over restrictions on women’s dress and gender-segregated seating on public buses. In a widely publicized incident in 2011, an 8-year-old Orthodox girl was spat on by haredim on the way to school for her perceived immodest dress.


A year on, Israeli team of rivals rules Netanyahu’s coalition

In the lead-up to last year’s Knesset elections, the pro-settlement Jewish Home party released a controversial ad showing party chairman Naftali Bennett smiling alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The message was clear: Netanyahu will be prime minister, but a vote for Jewish Home would give Bennett what he called “a hand on the steering wheel.”

More than having a hand on the wheel, the year since the formation of the new government has seen Jewish Home and the coalition’s other smaller parties driving much of the government’s agenda.  Netanyahu’s Likud party has taken a back seat on everything besides security affairs.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, passed a controversial austerity budget and advanced a bill to conscript haredi Orthodox Israelis. Tzipi Livni, founder of the small Hatnua party, led the first substantive talks with the Palestinian Authority since 2008. Bennett advanced a string of parliamentary bills focused on religion-state reforms.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has spent much of the past year fighting the same battles he fought in his last term, arguing for a more aggressive stance toward Iran’s nuclear program and taking a hard line on Israel’s security concerns.

With Netanyahu presiding over a team of rivals — a more difficult coalition than the relatively stable right-wing government of his previous term — many of the government’s initiatives have come from his partners, not him.

“What interests Netanyahu is the status quo,” Hebrew University political science professor Gideon Rahat said. “His style is not to do too much. Everyone else makes noise on smaller things.”

Lapid’s budget drew protests for raising taxes and cutting benefits, but proposed religious and social reforms have drawn the most attention.

As the first government without haredi parties in more than a decade, the coalition was able to pass some major legislation eliminating haredi privileges without falling apart. The government cut subsidies to large haredi families and sent the first government paychecks to non-Orthodox rabbis. Bills conscripting haredim and advancing gay parenting rights are close to passage.

The government also has moved toward forcing publicly funded haredi schools to teach English and math, as well as implementing an interdenominational compromise on the Western Wall. Yesh Atid is pushing legislation that would establish civil unions in Israel.

Not all the coalition members concur on the legislation involving haredim. Yesh Atid and Jewish Home broadly agree that haredim must be integrated and religious regulations streamlined, but they disagree on how.

Yesh Atid, a largely secularist party, campaigned on religious and social reforms, particularly on conscription and marriage. Jewish Home, which is largely modern Orthodox, has blocked some of the changes promised by Yesh Atid, opting instead to make religious bureaucracy more accessible while leaving core policies intact.

Their conflict payed out during the recent debate over the haredi draft bill. Following threats by Yesh Atid to quit the coalition, the bill now includes prison time for haredim who refuse to enlist. But because of pressure from Jewish Home, the penalties won’t take effect until 2017 — enough time for haredim to run in another election and possibly re-enter the governing coalition, where they could roll back the law.

The cause of greatest acrimony has been the peace talks. Hatnua was founded to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. Jewish Home opposes a Palestinian state of any kind and supports settlement growth. Yesh Atid, once a quiet supporter of negotiations, has since become a stronger voice for a two-state solution, widening its rift with Jewish Home.

To jump-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations last summer, Israel agreed to an unpopular prisoner release. As the talks progressed, Jewish Home threatened to leave the coalition. But eight months later, peace talks are on the verge of collapse and the sides seem to be no closer to a deal.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s security efforts haven’t yielded much success. An interim accord between Iran and the Western powers took effect despite the prime minister’s warnings that it was a “bad deal.” When Israel captured a ship this month laden with weapons destined for terrorist groups that Israel said originated in Iran, few world leaders responded.

“The Israeli strategy collapsed after the November agreement,” said Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “The world doesn’t want to hear bad news about Iran. The world is hiding its head in the sand.”

One of Israel’s most significant security accomplishments has been clandestine bombings of weapons shipments to Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group. But with Israel’s policy of deliberate ambiguity, Netanyahu can’t officially take credit for the attacks.

Perhaps Netanyahu’s most notable achievement in the year-old government is that the coalition he cobbled together is still intact.

“Every time he keeps going one more year,” Rahat said. “Staying in power is not easy. He looks like a leader above the fray, and he likes it that way.”


Charedim should start with ‘thank you’

Put yourself in the shoes of an Israeli mother whose son was killed while serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). On television, you watch close to half a million Ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrate last Sunday against a bill that would force some of them to serve in the IDF, which is mandatory in Israel. The Charedi demonstrators want their special exemption from army service to continue, because they believe that studying Torah is more important.

If you’re that mother who suffered a tragic loss, how does watching that demonstration make you feel about Torah study? Would you want to ask: Why should my boy die defending his country while other boys are safe and protected because they study Torah?

In other words, why should studying Torah be a pretext to avoid fulfilling one’s obligation to the state?

It’s a legitimate question, and any of my Charedi friends who pretend otherwise are living in denial.

[The Charedi draft debate: Dr. Irving Lebovics responds /
Knesset passes Charedi draft law / Community response]

Whenever Charedim tell me that studying Torah provides a sort of “spiritual protection” for the state, here’s how I reply (only half in jest): “OK, you give the state spiritual protection, and in return the state will give you spiritual dollars.”

They hate when I say that, because they know that spiritual dollars won’t pay their rent or buy groceries for Shabbat.

Somehow, when it comes to money, Charedim become very secular. To protect the millions they get from the state, they lose all vestige of insularity. In Knesset committees and other secular venues, they will gladly sit next to women in miniskirts and play bare-knuckle politics if it means more money for their yeshivas.

They’re no fools. They know the value of hard, cold, secular cash.

Well, the average Israeli is no fool, either.  

Israelis know well the value of serving in the IDF and defending the state. Just as “spiritual dollars” can’t buy groceries, they know that a book of Talmud can’t kill a terrorist.

It’s not enough to point out that, at the creation of the State of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself decided to exempt a few hundred Charedim from serving in the army. When something is wrong or unjust, it doesn’t matter who started it.

What matters is that it gets fixed.

Ironically, the “fix” that Charedim were demonstrating against on Sunday is as hard-nosed as a wet noodle. The new Knesset law grants tens of thousands of Charedim an exemption from service immediately (all those 22 and older) and, in the future, many thousands more. Future quotas of how many must serve are so small that they’ve become the object of ridicule.

“Even the [C]haredim are laughing,” Meretz MK Ilan Gilon wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “It’s no coincidence that hundreds of thousands took to the street to pray. They’re expressing thanks, because this is what they hoped for. This bill will allow a mass of [enlistment] exemptions in the next decade and surely will not increase the percentage of [C]haredim in the IDF.”

The Charedi argument that they’re protesting only the enforcement clause of the law (jail time for lawbreakers) is undermined by their many public statements against the very idea of serving in the IDF and in favor of the supremacy of Torah study.

Their other argument, that there already are wonderful exceptions — Charedim who are serving in the IDF and others who would like to — is undermined by the very fact that these are exceptions.

Yes, the new bill may be lame and heavy-handed, but that’s also no excuse. Bill or no bill, the bottom line is that when you have half a million religious Jews demonstrating against fulfilling a vital civil obligation, you have a big chillul HaShem — desecration of the name of God — on your hands.

[Community response to David Suissa on Charedi draft]

Charedi leaders who urged their masses of followers to hit the streets on Sunday should have known better. They should have known that any time you have a public gathering of religious Jews, chillul Hashem and kiddush HaShem — sanctification of God’s name — hang in the balance.

Do something noble and you honor God’s name.

Do something distasteful and you dishonor His name.

For the great majority of Israelis, the notion of refusing to share in the burden of defending the country is not just distasteful, it’s unjust.

This obligation to defend the country is not an attack on the Torah — just the opposite. Learning Torah and defending the country are not mutually exclusive. Combining both is a living example of kiddush HaShem.

Think about it: If learning Torah all day leads to intolerance, insularity and a disconnection from your fellow Jews, how is that honoring the Torah? And if learning Torah leads to animosity toward Israel, a refusal to fulfill civil obligations and an absence of gratitude, how is that honoring the Torah?

The 500,000 Charedim who demonstrated in Jerusalem had an opportunity to create a big kiddush HaShem — and they missed it. Instead of proudly holding up signs that said, “We will not take part in the Zionist army,” they should have held up signs that expressed the Jewish value of gratitude: “Thank you IDF for protecting us.” 

It’s the least they could have done for all those Israeli mothers who lost sons in that Zionist army — sons who fought to protect all Israelis, even those without enough Torah wisdom to say thank you.

Religion vs. Religion

It’s tempting to look at the latest crisis in Israel — over whether the Charedim should serve in the military — as pitting religion against the state. Just look at some of the comments from both sides. On the fervent religious side, Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef has declared a state of emergency. In his weekly sermon on July 7, as reported in Ynet, the rabbi is quoted as saying:

“We’re facing great distress. Unfortunately, there are some who think they can diminish the honor of the Torah, decrease the learning of the Torah, the number of those who study Torah, and the number of those who work for the Torah.”

He added: “We’re surrounded by people who hate us … Iran, Hezbollah and those Palestinians who hate the people of Israel. Who shall save us? The Torah! If the Torah hadn’t existed — the world wouldn’t have been created.”

Yosef has instructed synagogues in Israel and abroad to say the Avinu Malkeinu prayer twice a day until further notice. The prayer, which is recited during the High Holy Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, includes the words “Our father, our king, tear away the evil sentence.”

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Nelly Barak of Arad, whose son, Lt. Hanan Barak, was killed during a June 2005 border incident:

“They [yeshiva students] should not use the Torah as an excuse. That’s unacceptable. Everyone is equal in this country. Why is my son’s blood worth less?” Barak said, as reported in Ynet.

She added: “When our children want to go to the university they first have to serve for three years [in the army]. The yeshiva students can also serve three years and then study Torah for the rest of their lives if they so desire.”

And right in the middle of this mess is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, desperately trying to balance both sides and keep his coalition intact. His new coalition includes partners from Kadima — led by Shaul Mofaz — who are pushing hard to enact a new law requiring the Charedim to serve in the military, while his Charedi partners on the other side are resisting these efforts.

This is an issue that was bound to erupt, ever since Prime Minister David Ben Gurion decided in 1948 to exempt yeshiva students from enlisting in the army. The exemption applied to only a few hundred students then; today, more than 50,000 yeshiva students study Talmud all day while other Israelis risk their lives to protect them.

Who ever thought that such an inequity could last?

Not only do these yeshiva students not serve in the military, they also receive financial aid from the government to sustain their Torah-only lifestyle. There’s something more than a little hypocritical about this. It’s like saying: “We want to learn Torah all day without engaging with the rest of secular society, but we will engage politically with this society to get their financial support.”

You might say it’s a classic case of the state versus religion.

But I think it’s a lot more than that: It’s also religion versus religion. Judaism hurting Judaism.

As one of the great religious Zionist leaders, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, once told me, nothing has created more animosity toward the Jewish religion in Israel than the fact that full-time yeshiva students don’t serve in the military. It’s easy to see why: If the ultimate representatives of Torah don’t do their fair share to defend their country, what does that say about the Torah they study and revere?

That’s why I so admire the religious Zionist movement, which has been able to marry both Torah study and service to their country. They have been the antidote to the isolationist tendencies of the Charedim. A few days ago, many of their leaders expressed support for the movement to introduce the draft to the Charedi world while also reaffirming the importance of Torah study.

Personally, I think the Charedim should see this crisis as an opportunity to honor their religion. They should stand up and say they will willingly serve. This would not just benefit their country; it also would honor the name of God in the eyes of every Israeli.

After all, where is it written in the Torah that defending your country and studying Torah are mutually exclusive?

And shouldn’t honoring your religion in the eyes of other Jews be as valuable as the mitzvah of Torah study?

Of course, because this is such an emotional issue, complicated by decades of ingrained habits and the reality of power politics, moving forward won’t be simple. So, to cut through all the drama, I asked my friend in Jerusalem, author Yossi Klein Halevi, to give me his take on the crisis. Here’s what he e-mailed me:

“We need to move on this issue with both sensitivity and resolve. Sensitivity in the sense of respecting the Charedi community for its extraordinary commitment to Torah, for assuming in many cases a voluntary poverty for the sake of study. And resolve in conveying the simple, non-negotiable message that the Israeli majority can no longer afford to carry, either economically or militarily, a rapidly expanding Charedi population.”

His last words perfectly summarized the crisis: “We simply can’t do it anymore.”

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Haredim hold prayer protest of draft

Thousands of haredi Orthodox held a prayer rally to protest the forced enlistment of yeshiva students.

The early Monday morning demonstration by men, women and children was organized by the Eda Haredit organization in Jerusalem. Participants reportedly read psalms and lamentations.

The protest came as the Plesner Committee was meeting to find an alternative to the Tal Law, which grants military exemptions to haredi Orthodox Israeli men. The law is set to expire next month, and it is believed the committee will call for the required draft of haredi Orthodox men.

Eda Haredit leader Rabbi Tuvia Weiss told rally participants, “We will not allow yeshiva students to be taken to the army or police, and will not be fazed by their seductions.” He added that forced army service or designated service are being required by the government “in order to destroy the Torah world.”

Who are the Charedim?

The disturbing recent episode involving the harassment of an 8-year-old Orthodox girl in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, and the ongoing controversy over separate seating for women on public buses in Jerusalem and elsewhere, has focused new attention on that group of Jews known as Charedim (or ultra-Orthodox). But who are they, and where do they come from?

In their own self-presentation, they are the direct heirs of a long-standing Torah-true Judaism. Indeed, they frequently declare the desire to walk in “the path of the ancient Israel” (derekh Yisrael sava), as if they represent an unbroken chain of tradition. And yet, Charedim are a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish history, a group born in modern times, even though possessed of a decidedly anti-modern worldview. Insofar as they regard the world around them as corrupt and polluted, they believe that it is necessary to engage in a prolonged struggle to assure the purity of their Jewish lives. This leads to a set of impulses that often grate against one another: a martial impulse to join in battle on behalf of the Almighty, paired with a separatist impulse to isolate themselves from the rest of society in order to assure that purity. In both cases, they are motivated by “charada,” a Hebrew word that connotes a trembling fear or anxiety in the face of God’s omnipotence. From this state of vigilant anxiety issues the name “Charedim.”

In studying the Charedim, scholars such as the late Israeli historian Jacob Katz point to the advent of a “new traditionalism” in 19th century Europe. They note the influence of the German-born rabbi, Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762-1839), known as the Hatam Sofer, who gained renown for his forceful opposition to currents of change in Judaism in his time. This opposition was immortalized in the Hatam Sofer’s famous credo: “Chadash asur min haTorah” — innovation is forbidden as a matter of Torah. He himself left his native Germany for Pressburg in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to establish a yeshiva that would gain renown for its traditionalist curriculum and rigor. There he would join forces with an unlikely partner, the Galician-born Chasidic Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, to combat the “modernizers” — such as the first Reform Jews, whom they believed were undermining the true faith. (Chasidism was an 18th century populist movement of spiritual revival that took aim at elitist Torah scholarship inaccessible to the masses.)

The unlikely pairing of a non-Chasidic Germany rabbi and a Chasidic rebbe from Galicia reveals one of the characteristic features of Charedi Judaism: its diversity. There are not only non-Chasidic and Chasidic components to the phenomenon, but many variants of Chasidism within the Charedi world. The same Austro-Hungarian Empire where the Hatam Sofer settled proved to be, in the late 19th century, the chief incubator of this new experiment in religious traditionalism. In particular, Hungary was the site of an intense battle among differing Jewish factions including the Neolog (akin to Reform), Status Quo (somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox), Orthodox and Charedi camps. Already in the late 19th century, the Charedim insisted on a new degree of ritual stringency in Jewish communal life. The descendants of Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum were especially energetic in insisting on new standards of kashrut, gender segregation, modest dress for women, and resistance to secular studies. The most famous of those descendants, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), also gained renown for his fierce and unrelenting opposition to Zionism, which he regarded as a violation of the rabbinic injunction against “hastening the [messianic] end.” 

As a matter of fact, opposition to Zionism was a key feature of the many new forms of traditionalist Judaism that took rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, it is best to think of these new forms as occupying a spectrum that included more moderate and more radical versions, though the differences would not be readily discernible to the average observer. For example, a new traditionalist movement took rise in 1912, the Agudat Yisrael, composed of Chasidic and non-Chasidic Jews from Poland and Germany, with the express mission of warding off the secularizing influence of the Zionist movement. They were not joined, however, by the leaders of Hungarian Charedi Judaism such as Joel Teitelbaum and the Munkaczer Rebbe, who, in fact, forbade their followers from having any contact with the Aguda. This reminds us that the impulse to engage in battle that has been so central to Charedi Judaism was often directed against one’s putative allies. The Hungarians regarded themselves as purists and branded the Aguda as collaborators, for reasons that will soon become clear.

For all of their opposition to Zionism, Charedim of different stripes — moderates and radicals alike — felt a deep bond with Eretz Yisra’el and sought to settle there. The more radical among them established in 1919 their own “Edah Charedit” (Charedi Community) in the Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem. This community served as an alternative, anti-Zionist source of religious authority, with its own synagogues, yeshivas and kashrut norms in various Jerusalem neighborhoods, as well as Bnei Brak. Their own curious blend of quietism and activism rested on the belief that while one should not seek to establish Jewish self-government in Palestine in advance of the Messiah, one should not surrender the Holy Land to the Zionists, with whom compromise was impossible.

The Aguda adopted a different tack. In 1933, it entered into an agreement with the Zionist-led Jewish Agency to receive 6.5 percent of the immigration certificates to Palestine that the agency had to distribute. And in 1947, the Aguda was partner to the famous Status Quo agreement that David Ben-Gurion, soon to be Israel’s first prime minister, proposed that guaranteed that the new state would observe the Sabbath, maintain kashrut in government institutions, and cede control over education and personal status matters to religious authorities. 

Over time, the Aguda has become more and more integrated into Israeli political life; its representatives serve as deputy ministers and members of Knesset. Some would say that the price to pay for the Status Quo agreement — and the Aguda’s involvement in Israeli public life — is a high one: coercive Orthodox control over religious affairs in Israel. That may well be, but what transpired in Beit Shemesh — and the battle over gender segregation on buses in Israel — result from the more radical Charedi component, whose roots extend back to the Edah Charedit. While adamantly separatist — for example, their leaders do not serve in the Knesset or in government ministries — they are, at the same time, an increasingly aggressive, visible and populous component of the Israeli public square. Their heavy-handed and at times violent tactics are not new. They have their roots in the formative Hungarian setting of Charedi Judaism. The key question is: Will their growing numbers necessitate a greater integration into and accommodation to Israeli society, thereby mitigating their separatist and martial impulses? Or will their increasing prominence and sense of empowerment result in ever-deeper fissures in Israel’s social fabric? To a great extent, the future of Israel hinges on the answer to these questions.

David N. Myers is chair of the UCLA History Department; he is writing a book, along with Nomi Stolzenberg, on the Satmar Chasidic village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y.

Right Is wrong

Much has already been written about the horrifying scenes of violence, extremism and chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) taking place in Israel these past weeks — indeed these past years; but something more needs to be said. 

The images and reality of grown men, extremists, wrapped in tallit and kippah, black hats and beards; shouting, hitting, spitting at, chasing school girls because they wear skirts that do not cover their ankles, shirtsleeves that do not cover their wrists, because they dare to walk with their mothers on the same sidewalk as men, sicken me and tarnish Judaism for all of us.  

These “religious men,” a small but not insignificant percentage of the ultra-Orthodox (or Charedi) community, are physically forcing women to the back of Israeli buses, engaging in vandalism against Israeli army bases, calling female soldiers “prostitutes,” all in the name of “true” Judaism. I want to make it clear that not all ultra-Orthodox Jews behave like this or believe like this, but a vocal and powerful minority certainly does. This vocal minority and their rabbis believe their religion demands they exclude women from public and religious life, that to even look at a picture of a woman on a billboard, or to hear a woman sing, let alone read Torah or sit beside them in synagogue, is a sin. 

I say their religion, and not my religion, because the Judaism they promote is not my Judaism, nor is it any kind of Judaism that most modern Jews would ever associate with. Yet the majority of Jews in America and Israel have remained silent in the face of this fundamentalist wave sweeping through Judaism today. 

We are silent because many liberal, progressive Jews are conditioned to think that Charedim are the “real Jews.” They look the most religious, the most committed, the most traditional. Our heads fill with visions of Tevye dancing down the streets of his shtetl, and we get a feeling the ultra-Orthodox are guaranteeing the Jewish future.

They are not guaranteeing the Jewish future. They are undermining it. Sure, by having very large families, they are producing more Jews. But the future they would create looks more like Islamist Iran than any future the vast majority of Jews should want for themselves or their children.

It is not enough to say, as most leaders of the Orthodox community have, that these people are radicals, a tiny bunch of fanatics who represent no one. Because they are not a small group, and they have support.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics is predicting that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community will make up nearly one-third of the country’s population within 50 years. Other Israeli Jews are expected to become a minority in Israel, squeezed between the growing ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations. Even in America, Charedi Jews represent the fastest-growing sector of the Jewish population.

A serious if gradual integration of Charedim into the Israeli workforce, as well as a firmer separation of synagogue and state, would, as Gershom Gorenberg points out in his book “The Unmaking of Israel,” go a long way toward taming the extremist behavior and rhetoric.  

But, in the meantime, we must not be silent. Now is the time to speak up, as progressive Jews, as modern Jews, as authentic Jews. Our tradition demands it of us: “When a person has the ability to protest and remains silent, his silence is similar to verbal consent. When you do not say something to disagree, it is as if you agree with what was said or done. Silence is assent!” (S’forno, Nedarim) We must speak out against fundamentalism and extremism everywhere, especially in our own Jewish community.

Moreover, we must go to Beit Shemesh, we must go to Jerusalem, and if we can’t go physically, then we must send money ahead to support progressive Jewish institutions in Israel. Institutions like the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) of Reform Judaism and Women of the Wall, the leader of which, Anat Hoffman, is even now visiting American synagogues seeking our support. 

We must demand, through the purse strings of the American Jewish community, that our federations and organizations publicly withhold funding from these extremist groups that have turned a beautiful religious tradition into an ugly mob cloaked in religious garb, who spit on women, attack Israeli soldiers and policemen, and would just as soon send most modern Jews to the back of the bus, if not under it.

We must stop thinking of ourselves as inauthentic Jews. Our Judaism is real, it is vibrant, it is authentic, it is inclusive, and it is the future. Tevye was fiction. The real story is why our great-grandparents left the old country and its backward ways. We don’t need to apologize for being modern Jews, and we should give no license and no support to extremists of any ilk, Jewish or other, who demand we conform to their fundamentalist worldview.

If your interpretation of Judaism means that you don’t want to sit on a bus with a woman, then get off and walk. But if your Judaism teaches just the opposite — and Reform Judaism, progressive Judaism does — then stop apologizing and climb on board this movement. You can sit anywhere you like — you can even drive.

Dan Moscovitz is rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana.

Charedis’ Political Clout a Threat to Israel, Regev Says

The most serious internal problem facing Israel is the political clout exerted by the Charedim  (ultra-Orthodox), which threatens the future unity, economic development and military readiness of the state.

This is the firm conviction of Rabbi Uri Regev, who recently spent a week in Los Angeles to garner support for Hiddush, a year-old organization whose motto calls for “religious freedom and equality in Israel.”

Regev, a native-born Israeli, Reform leader and president/CEO of Hiddush (Hebrew for innovation or renewal), co-founded the movement with Los Angeles business executive Stanley Gold, who serves as chairman.

In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Regev, 59, argued with characteristic intensity and passion that “the Israeli public will no longer tolerate selling Israel’s future to the Charedi parties … and a Charedi-dominated Chief Rabbinate which controls its life from birth to death and almost everything in between.”

As backup, he cited a poll taken last summer asking which internal confrontation most threatened Israel’s social cohesion.

Some 73 percent considered Charedi versus secular as the most serious split, trailed by the political left versus right, rich versus poor, Ashkenazi versus Sephardi, and new immigrants versus settled residents, Regev said.

Conventional wisdom has it that while most non-Charedim Israelis chafe under religious controls, they feel powerless or are too wrapped up in more immediate problems to exert much effort to change the situation.

Regev maintained that such alleged passivity no longer holds true, as shown by two mass demonstrations last year.

One protested a government attempt to circumvent a Supreme Court decision that would have eliminated 135 million shekels (about $38 million) in public funds to subsidize 11,000 married yeshiva students.

The second protest was aimed at Charedi government officials who ruled that an emergency medical station could not be built adjoining the Barzilai Medical Center in rocket-rattled Ashkelon because the building site contained ancient Jewish bones, despite archaeological evidence to the contrary, Regev said.

But what riles Hiddush and most of the non-Charedi population the most is the exemption of full-time yeshiva students from military service, mandatory for all other Israeli men and women.

The exemption goes back to the founding of the state, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt 400 yeshiva students from military service. 

The number now has grown to 65,000, after almost doubling during the past decade, and, given the high birthrate in Charedi families, will dangerously cut into the country’s future military manpower, Regev argued.

A parallel danger, he said, is to the state’s economic future, since many Charedim do not enter the work force or are not prepared to do so because they lack the necessary education and skills.

Underlying much of the problem is the disproportionate power held by Charedi political parties, which represent a minority of the population but frequently hold the balance of power in Israel’s multiparty coalition governments.

The solution, however, does not lie in the efforts of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI), founded in Los Angeles, and of other advocates to reform the Israeli electoral system to resemble those of the United States or Britain.

“We need not wait for a fundamental government reform,” Regev said. “Israel will always have at least three parties, so the religious will always be the swing vote.”

However, Hiddush’s platfom does not impress Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, adjunct chair for Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola University Law School and a frequent Orthodox spokesman.

He disputed that the Israeli population is primarily secular. Rather, he said, “Most Israelis are neither Orthodox nor Reform nor secular, but traditional. They make kiddush on Friday night, keep kosher, attend synagogue and in general maintain a level of observance far exceeding that of the American Jewish community.”

Adlerstein said that among American Jews, the strongest support for aliyah and financial contributions to Israel comes from the Orthodox sector.

If support for Israel is declining among young American Jews, it is because “they are not into their Jewishness,” not because they fear Orthodox domination, Adlerstein said.

If the Chief Rabbinate seems at times out of touch with present realities, he added, the answer is not to hit them over the head with a mallet.

During its current start-up year, Hiddush has been operating on a $500,000 budget and skeleton staff, both incentives for Regev’s recent fundraising trip, his first, to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Hiddush obtained its nonprofit tax status from the IRS quite recently, and, without the support network of more established Israeli organizations, Regev relied mainly on contributions from Gold’s L.A. friends.

However, Hiddush’s brochure outlines a series of long-range projects, including use of social media in Israel and the Diaspora, alliances with like-minded groups, legal challenges, investigative media reports, special outreach to Russian immigrants in Israel and “report cards” on the votes of Knesset members.

For additional information, visit

Charedi yuppies

Moshe Shapoff was blown away by the look of the building. He was seeing it on a computer screen in three dimensions, and he couldn’t believe the level of detail. It was a redesign of a residential building in Jerusalem, which the architect had made bigger, more modern and certainly more beautiful.

Shapoff might have been impressed by the building, but he was even more impressed by the architect, a man named Yochanan.

Three years earlier, Yochanan was one of those Talmud-studying, out-of-work Charedim with lots of children who would knock on doors in Jewish neighborhoods across America to help feed their families.

Then, one day, a group of Charedim said dayenu — enough. Enough with the handouts. Enough with losing dignity. Enough with not going to work. They said, simply: Why can’t we find jobs like everybody else?

Last week, I had a chance to catch up with two of the Charedim behind this new effort: Asher Klitnick and Moshe Shapoff.

Their story began in 2004 in the tiny office of the Karlin-Stolin rebbe in Givat-Zev, a small suburb of Jerusalem. The rebbe, Baruch Meir Yaacov Shochet, was quite anxious that day. More and more poor families were coming to him for help. With the reduction in state subsidies, it was hard to help them all. Fundraising efforts were falling short. Something had to be done.

So the rebbe called for one of his trusted aides, Klitnick, a seventh-generation Karliner who would later enlist the aid of another of the rebbe’s followers, Shapoff.

In the Chasidic world, a rebbe is more than a rabbi and teacher. He is also a leader who guides you in all aspects of your life.

Klitnick and Shapoff were clearly in that mode. Whatever the rebbe said was gold — no questions asked.

This rebbe, by the way, was no ordinary rebbe. He was born in Brooklyn’s Borough Park in 1955 to the daughter of the previous Karlin-Stolin rebbe, who had no son. As the story goes, the previous rebbe, who was ailing when Baruch was born, held the baby in his hands every day during his first year and saw enough to anoint him as his successor. When the rebbe died in 1956, 1-year-old Baruch Meir Yaacov became the leader of one of the largest Chasidic sects in the world.

And don’t think he wasn’t taken seriously.

There are hundreds of stories of followers putting kvittels — pieces of paper with Hebrew names of people needing blessings — under the baby’s/rebbe’s crib. Even while he was an infant, thousands of his followers, who are known for their intense and joyful davening, would visit him from Israel to bask in his aura.

As the rebbe grew in Torah knowledge and stature, the Karliner sect expanded into other communities on the East Coast and in Israel, as well. By the time the rebbe decided to move to Israel when he was in his mid-30s, he had picked up enough American know-how to begin doing outreach with secular Jews and enough savvy to understand the importance of image in the modern world.

So when he called Klitnick into his office on that day in 2004 to discuss the growing crisis of poor Charedi families, the rebbe had more on his mind than just fundraising. This time, he was also thinking about jobs. He asked Klitnick and his team to prepare Charedis to join the working world.

After a few stumbles, Klitnick and Shapoff, who were also born in the United States and speak fluent English, broke through with the launch of Amida, a job training organization dedicated strictly to Charedi Jews. So far, they have helped fund the education of almost 100 of their fellow Charedim in fields like graphic design, computer programming, business management, engineering, travel agencies and, yes, even architecture.

Their biggest problem now is that they have a huge waiting list of Charedim anxious to go to school and find work, which is why they’ve come knocking on doors in America.

But this time, they’re asking for fishing rods, not fish.

I can tell that Klitnick and Shapoff have struck a chord in the Los Angeles Jewish community just by seeing who they visit when they come to town. In addition to their Charedi brethren in Hancock Park, they have visited and received support from Rabbi Marvin Hier, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi David Wolpe and even an award-winning Hollywood producer, Howard Rosenman.

They have also been invited to participate in the Limmud Conference on President’s Day weekend in February, which will bring together Jews of all denominations to celebrate the richness and beauty of Judaism.

In truth, it’s painful to admit that over the years, the image of the Charedim has been anything but beautiful. When Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, at the time of Israel’s creation, gave a few hundred Charedim a pass on army service — in deference to their tradition of daily Torah study — no one could have predicted that 60 years later, they would represent almost a quarter of the Jewish Israeli population. With a general resistance to joining the secular work force and a heavy dependence on the state, it’s not hard to see why they have suffered from an image problem.

Now, these two affable, BlackBerry-carrying, black-hat Charedi yuppies, Klitnick and Shapoff, are hopping all around Los Angeles and Hollywood hoping to improve that image.

In addition to their bright-eyed charm, they will have something else going for them. The schools in Israel have told them that Talmud experts, which the Charedim certainly are, are now in big demand among employers. Apparently, the mind-numbing precision of Talmudic discourse, combined with the breadth of knowledge inherent in the Talmud, creates ideal job candidates.

Come to think of it, Shapoff did marvel at the extraordinary amount of detail and precision in Yochanan’s building designs.

Who knew that yeshivas could train future architects?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Nahal Haredi: Unorthodox battalion seeks to change Orthodox image

Click BIG ARROW for a soldier’s video about his comrades in the Nahal Haredi
In Israel, where service in the armed forces is every man’s — and most women’s — duty, the majority of Israelis, from secular to Modern Orthodox, have long scorned the ultra-Orthodox “black hats” for avoiding military service by studying in yeshivas.

Now, a battalion of ultra-religious young men, known as Nahal Haredi, is seeking to change this image by combining Torah study with the bearing of arms.

Between 10 percent and 12 percent of the 800 to 1,000 men in the battalion are mahalniks, or volunteers from abroad, with the largest contingents from the United States and France, followed by Russia and South Africa.

Currently, in an unorthodox outreach campaign, the Orthodox rabbis, who worked with the army to establish Nahal Haredi, are planning an advertisement campaign in major Jewish newspapers in the United States and Britain to encourage foreign volunteers who can meet specific standards to come to Israel and join the battalion.

The ad drive is due to begin in July or August and, if effective, will be extended to other Diaspora countries with sizable Orthodox communities, said Rabbi Tzvi Klebanow, director of Nahal Haredi-Netzah Yehuda, an auxiliary that serves as the link between the IDF and the ultra-Orthodox Charedi community. He hopes that Orthodox lay and spiritual leaders in the United States will support the drive.

Nahal Haredi was established in 1999 and was met initially with considerable skepticism by both Charedim and army generals. The beginnings were quite rocky, but now the project seems to be hitting its stride.

What kind of men is Nahal Haredi looking for? According to the organization’s Web site the basic requirements are “Shabbat observance, wearing a kippah and a refined speech.”

Theoretically, any man (no women, of course) who meets these basic criteria can join the battalion, but in practice, some 70 percent come from ultra-Orthodox homes in B’nai-B’rak and other Charedi enclaves.

Time is set aside for daily Talmud study, and the food is glatt kosher. No women are allowed on the base, but on Shabbat, married soldiers can meet their wives outside the base.

“Nahal Haredi has the highest proportion of Diaspora volunteers of any Israeli unit; they come to us with high motivation, and many subsequently make aliyah,” Klebanow said. “Sometimes, they are more Zionistic than native-born Israelis.”

Klebanow cited other advantages: “The Orthodox population is going up because of its high birthrate, while the secular population is going down, so if Israel is to have an army in 20 years, it must have more Orthodox soldiers.”

To further integrate Charedim into mainstream Israeli society, Klebanow’s organization supports one year of college studies for discharged soldiers, while last month American telecommunications tycoon Howard Jonas promised a job in one of his Israeli companies to every soldier in the battalion who completes his service.

This video shows training excercises for the medical team

Digital Divide

Though Israel boasts a burgeoning high-tech industry and a predominantly Net-savvy populace, many of the country’s charedim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) view technology, especially the World Wide Web, as something of a mixed blessing. Sure, many charedim support their families by writing code, and several sites such as help Diaspora Jews answer questions about Jewish law, but earlier this year the Council of Torah Sages banned the Internet from its followers’ homes. In a harshly worded edict, the panel of Talmudic scholars that represents the majority of charedi sects branded the Internet a “terrible danger” that’s “1,000 times” more hazardous than television (which was cast out of ultra-Orthodox homes about 30 years ago). Some sects even declared personal computers in the home off-limits.

Rabbi Yitzhak Halperin may be one of the few people with the power to relax the ban. He’s the 75-year-old founder of the Institute for Science and Halacha — something of a cross between a high school laboratory and a yeshiva — that develops technology to “expand observance of halacha and decrease its desecration.” In other words, the Institute detects loopholes in Jewish law, then builds Rube Goldberg-style contraptions such as the “Sabbath Telephone.”

Some rabbis equate the act of dialing, which initiates an electric current, with creating fire, a Sabbath no-no. The Institute’s phone, which looks like a rotary-dial unit circa 1972 that underwent a face lift with a drill, operates in the opposite manner. By inserting a golf-pencil-sized dowel in holes that correspond to each number, users interrupt a continuous flow of energy, which triggers the dialing mechanism. It’s completely kosher, since nothing in halacha forbids dousing a fire.

Halperin’s right-hand rabbi, Shmuel Strauss, defends the Institute’s unorthodox mission.

“If the lawmaker is human,” explains Strauss, “sometimes he makes mistakes. If you see a loophole in the law, don’t take it, respect the intent of the lawmaker. But if the Lawmaker never makes a mistake and never overlooks anything, and still there’s a loophole, then what’s it there for?”

Despite maintaining a Web site ( to benefit his Institute’s fundraising efforts, Halperin allows no loopholes for Internet use in the home. Hunched over a leather-bound volume of Judaic teachings, the end of his Moses-like white beard resting on the yellowing pages, Halperin dismisses the World Wide Web as a potential “poison,” and he justifies the ban as a bid to shield religious children from online pornography and violence.

Writer Jonathan Rosenblum, an official spokesperson for much of the charedi community, also applauds the restrictions.

“The Torah teaches us that every visual image to which we are exposed leaves its impact,” says Rosenblum. “Damage to the holiness of one’s soul cannot be compensated for later, any more than a dieter can compensate for a chocolate mousse by eating a fruit salad afterwards.”

Rosenblum, who recently rid his home of the Internet, elaborated in his Jerusalem Post column: “Charedim don’t reject modern technology, but they don’t subscribe to the cult of the new, according to which life without the most up-to-date technology is considered not worth living. They seek to remain masters of technology, not its slaves.”

Maybe so. But charedim may have other motivations for shunning technology; perhaps Windows offers a window on secular society that entices those questioning their commitment to a religious lifestyle?

“The Internet is the charedim world’s latest fear,” argues Laura Sachs, deputy director of Hillel: The Association for Jews Leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy. “Their greatest fear is exposure to the outside world, a threat to their way of life. They don’t let their people read outside newspapers, listen to outside radio, see movies or theater. … I think their fears are correct. The minute these walls come down, they’ll have a lot of problems keeping people inside.”

Charedi leaders dispute the notion that the Internet might spur an exodus.

“Nonsense,” scoffed Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel, dean of The Charedi Center For Technological Studies, a 4-year-old college serving ultra-Orthodox students. “Whoever believes this is making Judaism a very cheap thing. Judaism would not be alive 5,000 years later if every new trend would endanger it.”

Conceding that the ban may merit reexamination as the Web becomes more ubiquitous, Fogel foresees a halachic solution to the conundrum: a “clean” ISP, sort of a charedi Intranet. A business plan for such a system recently crossed his desk. Others envisage the emergence of a monitoring system that covertly transmits random screen shots to the head of the household.

But Joshua, a 22-year-old yeshiva student strolling trough the charedi enclave of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, suggests another alternative that could gain popularity. Joshua’s parents, who keep in touch with American relatives via e-mail, quietly defied the rabbinical order. Administrators at the religious school that Joshua’s 11-year-old brother attends demanded that his parents sign a written pledge to keep their home computer-free, which “they couldn’t believe,” says Joshua, swinging a black plastic shopping bag containing new Nikes. “My parents know it’s dumb, but they signed anyway,” he added. “Why go head-to-head with the rabbis?”