Friday, February 27, 2015

Adopt a Kollelnik, the Torah Way

Over the last few years, we have been discussing the ever-worsening poverty crisis in the charedi world, its potential to harm the rest of Israel, and the refusal of charedi leadership to try to solve the problem. We've seen charedi apologists insist that charedim have a right to require the rest of the country to support them. And we've seen well-meaning but deeply misguided activists attempt to raise funds from the US in order to prolong the current disastrous kollel system.

What can we do about it? There are many of us who want to help, and who are willing to contribute to address this crisis, but only in a way that truly helps, not in a way that just makes things even worse further down the line.

We need a charity fund that will work according to Chazal's values. We need to not adopt a kollel, but to adopt a kollelnik, and to adopt him like a parent adopts a child. After all, he is indeed like a child, having never been taught how to fend for himself. We need to be like parents - with the parents' obligation, as per Chazal, being to teach their children to be financially self-sufficient. And, like parents, we need to impart Chazal's values to our adopted children.

In practical terms, this means as follows. There needs to be a charitable fund that will not simply give cash or food handouts to people in kollel, but rather will prepare them for the world of work. The very worthy organization Kemach already does that, but we need a fund that will also insist that its recipients will not make the same mistakes with their children, and that they will follow Chazal's directive to prepare one's children to be financially self-sufficient. This means that they will not send their children to schools that do not teach secular studies and that indoctrinate the students towards a kollel lifestyle.

Ideally (but not essentially), this fund would also work in a way that could be directly targeted. In other words, if a kollelnik comes to your door to ask for money, you could offer to help him, and specifically him, within the framework of this charitable fund. This would mean that you need not feel guilty about not helping him, and it would give him an incentive to change. You could say, "I am willing him to help you a significant way, provided you are willing to follow Chazal's values." I've been speaking with someone about setting up such a fund.

Meanwhile, if you are looking to give matanot l'evyonim in a worthy and meaningful way, then I can recommend Lemaan Achai. They focus on rehabilitating people into being independent, rather than giving handouts. And they provide an option of a "Smart Matanot L'evyonim" program in which half the money will be given on Purim for the mitzva of the day and the other half set aside for more important needs. I can't praise Lemaan Achai highly enough!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Does a Person Have the Right To Choose Poverty?

Before returning to our discussion of why many centrist/ modern orthodox parents send their children to extreme charedi yeshivos, I would like to discuss a claim made at Cross-Currents by Rabbi Doron Beckerman. (Actually, it also relates to that discussion, because he was a rebbe at Ohr Yerushalayim, apparently a yeshivah for students from non-charedi backgrounds, yet he is preaching staunchly chareidi doctrine.)

Rabbi Beckerman attempts to counter MK Rabbi Dov Lipman's arguments regarding giving charedim a secular education so that they can enter the workforce. He states that "people have a right to decide to be poor for the sake of some higher ideal." While that can be read as technically true, given the context it is utterly false, from the perspective of traditional and halachic Judaism.

First of all, when we are talking about "poor", we are not referring to someone not being able to afford a car. The poverty that is affecting huge numbers of charedim, as described in Mishpachah and elsewhere, is abject poverty. We are talking about people who simply cannot put a roof over their heads or food on the table without financial assistance from others.

Do people have a right to force the community to support them for the sake of a higher ideal such as learning Torah? Absolutely not! (Note: We are currently not discussing a situation of a voluntary agreement, but rather the case of someone who refuses to learn a trade and thus decides that others will support him.) The Gemara makes it clear that this wrong, saying that a person should flay carcasses in the market (a lowly occupation) rather than demanding charitable support from others. The Rishonim had various different opinions about the permissibility of receiving payment for teaching Torah, but they never allowed a person to simply refuse to learn a trade and to force others to support him.

When it comes to one's children, the situation is equally clear. The Gemara records it as a concrete obligation on a father to teach his children a trade, i.e. to be economically self-sufficient. One is not allowed to decide that his children will be dependent upon others. (Yes, I know about R. Nehorai, and it is not relevant; first of all, his personal practice does not override a stated obligation, and second, various Acharonim explain that he was not simply negating the halachah, עיין שם.)

When I pointed all this out, Rabbi Beckerman responded by citing Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Moshe writes as follows:


 ומצד עניין הפרנסה, הא אף בדרך הטבע איכא, מאחר שהתירו להתפרנס מרבנות ומלהיות מגידי שיעור בישיבות גדולות וקטנות וגם היא פרנסה כבודה

Rav Moshe says that since today it is regarded as permissible for rabbis and educators to receive payment, therefore a father has fulfilled his obligation to teach his son a trade by teaching him to be a rabbi/ educator. Rabbi Beckerman claims that, following this, charedim today are entitled not to teach their children any trade/education aside from being a rav/rebbe.

However, this is a wholly inaccurate extrapolation. Chazal said that one should teach one’s son a trade, thereby making it likely to happen. Rav Moshe extended this to teaching your son to be a teacher, which in 1960s America, was also a reasonable profession. Furthermore, in section 11, Rav Moshe explicitly says that a father has only fulfilled his obligation if he has ensured that his son is suited to being a teacher and that he will have parnasah from it. Rabbi Beckerman wildly extrapolates this to be a license to bring up everyone to be in kollel today, where the chances of subsequently finding a paying job are minimal, as we see with our own eyes. That is not at all what Rav Moshe is discussing!

When I pointed this out, Rabbi Beckerman claimed that many people with professional training are also not able to get jobs, which is hardly relevant. He also issued the absurd claim that it is just as difficult for a person with a law degree to find employment as it is for an Israeli charedi person to find employment as a teacher. This is silly not only because it is false, but also because a person with a law degree has sufficient general training to also find employment in other fields, whereas an Israeli charedi has nothing to fall back upon.

The bottom line is that Chazal required a person to take steps to ensure that he does not require others to support him, and to make efforts that his children should be financially self-sufficient. Today there is a financial catastrophe in charedi society, as a direct result of charedim ignoring Chazal's dictates. Cross-Currents has many writers that are eager to condemn reformations of Judaism coming from the left; perhaps they could also condemn reformations of Judaism coming from the right.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Official Museum Opening Ceremony!

Yesterday was the official opening ceremony of The Biblical Museum of Natural History! We've been receiving visitors since Sukkos, but we delayed the opening ceremony until everything was fully set up (although we are constantly adding exhibits), and we could co-ordinate with various VIPs. One guest of honor was Minister of Culture Limor Livnat, who unfortunately had to cancel at the last moment, but who sent us the following video:


Mayor Moshe Abutbul with a reptilian friend.
Councilor Moshe Montag looks on in amusement.
We were also honored by the presence of Beit Shemesh mayor Moshe Abutbul, deputy mayor Shmuel Greenberg, and city councilors Moshe Montag and Motti Cohen, as well as Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb (Rabbi Berel Wein was also due to attend, but was unable to make it). The mayor surprised everyone by being so interested in all the animals that he wanted to handle everything!

Here is the opening part of my speech:
Mr. Lee Samson and Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb
Minister Livnat, Mayor Abutbul, distinguished Rabbanim and guests, good afternoon. Thank you all for coming here today, to celebrate the launch of Israel’s newest museum, The Biblical Museum of Natural History. I am particularly pleased to have one of our major benefactors here today from Beverly Hills, Mr. Lee Samson, who aside from helping tremendously with providing and raising funds and guidance for the museum, is also a wonderful father-in-law! I would also like to thank my hard-working colleagues at the museum – Maayan Steele, Shlomo Horowitz, Noah Persky and Chaya Leah Maierovits, as well as all of our volunteers. And I would like to express my deep appreciation to my wife Tali, who has put up with lots of animals taking over our house, and who has been such an amazing source of encouragement for me to build this museum and get the animals out of our house!
Deputy Mayor Shmuel Greenberg delivering a speech
Biblical natural history is a very powerful educational concept. From dati to haredi to secular, many Jews perceive Torah as a dry discipline that is focused upon the synagogue, study hall and written word. Biblical natural history brings Torah to life; it shows that Judaism can engage with the natural world, and presents educational concepts in a novel and exciting way.

The mayor is introduced to the first lion
in Beit Shemesh in seven hundred years
Biblical natural history also clarifies little-understood concepts. What did the prophets and sages mean when they drew upon the animal kingdom in presenting messages to us? Which are the kosher and non-kosher creatures described in the Torah? What role did various animals play in Biblical and Jewish history? Biblical natural history sheds light on all these questions and many more.

Biblical natural history also enhances appreciation and understanding of the natural world itself. Many of us today are very urbanized and out of touch with the natural world. There are countless teenagers who cannot apply themselves solely to Talmud and lack an outlet for their broader interests. Biblical natural history puts us in touch with the beautiful world that surrounds us and re-sensitizes us to it.

Testing a shofar from the world's
largest collection of exotic shofars
I have been writing and teaching about biblical natural history for nearly twenty years, in books, articles, lectures, and educational tours at zoos across the world. But it is with this museum that it finds its most powerful expression. This museum is a place that brings it all to life in the most vivid and interactive way. Seeing the animals up close and personal, touching and holding live animals, feeling the horns and the fur and the teeth and the claws – these are immensely powerful experiences.

We have been setting up the museum in this temporary rented facility over the last few months. In the short time that we’ve been receiving visitors, we’ve had datiim, charedim, mitnagidm, chassidim, chilonim, Anglos, Israelis, Brazilians, Jews and non-Jews. Following requests that we received, we are training Yiddish-speaking guides. We’ve had bar-mitzvah groups, corporate groups, many yeshivot and seminaries, Birthright groups, and even a group of Christian Bible scholars from Europe. Beit Shemesh is a city with many diverse communities, but the Biblical Museum of Natural History is a place that everyone can enjoy and appreciate.
Please spread the word about the museum, and check out our new website at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org!

The museum staff (excluding the new guides-in-training): Office manager Chaya Leah Maierovits, administrative
director Maayan Steele, assistant curator Noah Persky, director of youth education Shlomo Horowitz, and general director Rabbi Natan Slifkin, posing with mayor MosheAbutbul and burmese python Kaa.
(Photos by Mordechai Gordon)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Is This The Fabulous Shamir?

I have to interrupt the topic of "Why Do Centrist Orthodox Jews Send Their Kids to Extreme Charedi Yeshivos?" to share a fascinating news item. Scientists have discovered the strongest biological substance known to date. It's the teeth of a tiny creature in the snail family - the limpet, a small conical creature which is a familiar sight on rocks at the seashore.

This is of potential relevance to Judaism for two reasons. One is that it might relate to the shamir. This is the mysterious and fabulous creature that was used to carve the stones of the Temple, or (according to another view) the gemstones of the priestly breastplate.

Actually, the Gemara does not state that the shamir was an animal - it just describes it as something the size of a barley kernel, which had to be kept in a lead tube. In my book Sacred Monsters, I discussed Immanuel Velikovsky's original idea that this refers to a radioactive substance. Rambam and Rashi, however, describe it as a worm-like creature. Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler suggests that it is a snail from the genus Euchondrus, which carve gouges in rocks in the Negev desert. However, as I noted in my book, these limestone rocks are much softer than the gems of the breastplate. But, I noted, there are marine mollusks with much stronger dental equipment, and therefore it is therefore not beyond the realms of biological possibility to posit that there is (or was) a species of invertebrate that could indeed engrave the gemstones of the priestly breastplate. The limpet might be such a candidate, although it is difficult to see how it could have actually been employed in this way.

A second way in which this discovery relates to Judaism is in the symbolism of it. The Gemara says as follows:
"The Rabbis taught: There are five fears with which the fear of the weak is upon the mighty: The fear of the leontophone upon the lion, the fear of the mosquito upon the elephant, the fear of the gecko upon the scorpion, the fear of the swallow upon the vulture, and the fear of the kilbit-fish upon the whale. R. Yehuda said: What is the scriptural source? “He grants the robbed one power over the mighty” (Amos 5:9). (Shabbat 77b) (See the forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom for discussion of this passage.)

The idea here is that the very smallest creatures in the world are often the strongest in some way. This reminds us not to attribute too much power to the physically intimidating. The very strongest biological substance of all is not the fangs of a lion or the tusks of an elephant - it's the teeth of a humble snail.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Do Centrists Send Their Kids to Extreme Charedi Yeshivos?

There are many thousands of wonderful families in the Centrist and Modern Orthodox communities. These are people who value the State of Israel, one of the greatest miracles of Jewish history. They also value modern science, which has unlocked so many mysteries of the universe. These people also share the values of Chazal and the Rishonim in rating it as very important that a man work for a living and support his family.

Baruch Hashem, there is no shortage of wonderful yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael which share and teach these values. Why, then, do so many of these people send their children to yeshivos which teach the exact opposite?

These are yeshivos in which students were encouraged to attend a rally and pray to Hashem to pour out His wrath upon the State of Israel for somewhat equalizing the burden of military service. Yeshivos in which the Roshei Yeshivah, the revered heads of the institutions, attend Satmar anti-Israel hatefests. Yeshivos in which modern science is disparaged and students are taught an anti-rationalist outlook. Yeshivos in which students are taken to the Kosel to davven that their fellow students should not be forced to attend YU. Yeshivos in which it is drilled into the students that they must spend endless years in kollel, and rely on their parents to support them, rather than training for a profession. A student at one yeshivah told me how, when he told his rebbe that he was leaving, the rebbe took a Gemara, spat on it, hurled it to the ground, and said, "That's what you're doing to Chazal!"

Why do these people send their children, at a highly impressionable stage of their lives, to be immersed in an environment which teaches the exact opposite of the values that they hold dear?

In a future post, I will explore some possible reasons - and their shortcomings.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

So What's The Plan?


The Problem: The economic catastrophe in the charedi world. The trickle of charedim in vocational training programs does not outnumber those who take the kollel path.

The Cause: A new way of life in which men are given no secular education and are taught not to work, while women have large families and are not allowed to go to college.

The Forecast: Since charedim have large families, the economic catastrophe will get ever worse, and will eventually threaten the rest of the country.

The Plan: So what's the plan? How does charedi leadership plan to address this ever-worsening problem? Last week, I was involved in an extensive discussion about this question with a prominent figure in the charedi world. He confessed to not actually knowing what the plan is. This was very disturbing to me - you'd think that with such a huge, obvious problem, the plan would be known. But he offered three speculations:

1) When the situation gets really bad, the Gedolim will change social policy.

The problem with this is that the situation is already really bad, and yet Rav Steinman is continuing to insist that no secular education is permitted. Plus, you can't send people to the workforce overnight, it takes many years to change things.

2) Maybe there will be increased government/foreign aid.

The problem with this is that even if does happen, that just means that a few years later, when the money eventually runs out, the catastrophe will be even worse. It's simple math - when charedi society has six to ten children per family, there is no way that government or foreign aid can keep up.

3) Maybe Moshiach will come.

I was really taken aback by this one. That's a strategy?! What happened to it being forbidden to rely on miracles? He responded that if the Gedolim tell us to rely on miracles, we should do so.

How can it be that they are creating this terrible catastrophe, which is continually getting worse, and they have no viable plan?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I Love My Kids' School!

My kids attend a school with the overly-complicated name of Beit Sefer Mamlachti-Dati Charedi-Leumi Ahavat Yisrael. One of my boys brought home his mid-year certificate last week. It was in a folder that was illustrated with photos from the school, and had a Torah teaching on the back. I was really taken aback by it. This teaching, which is from Rav Mendel of Kotzk, went totally against everything that I was always taught in the (charedi) yeshivos that I attended:
"Limdu Heitev" (Yeshayah 1:17) - "Learn to do good" says Rashi. We do not find anywhere in the Torah that man is commanded to be a lamdan and expert in all fields of the Torah. For the goal of learning Torah is not to be a lamdan, but rather a good person; to do good and to be good to others.
In the yeshivos that I attended, I was taught relentlessly that man is indeed commanded to be a lamdan. In fact, I was taught that not only is man commanded to be a lamdan, but this is his overriding goal in life. It was drilled into me, again and again and again, that anyone who does not become a lamdan, and who does not spend most of his waking hours learning Gemara, has essentially failed in his time on earth. It's not just that "being a good person" took second place; I don't think that in all my years in yeshivah gedolah, I ever once heard that mentioned.

The yeshivos that I attended followed the philosophy that originated with Rav Chaim of Volozhin. The approach of Rav Mendel of Kotzk, on the other hand, is from much earlier. In my post Learning Torah: Rationalism vs. Mysticism, I explained that this approach regarding learning Torah was the normative view of the rationalist Rishonim, whereas Rav Chaim of Volozhin's approach, while it originated with him, was made possible via the groundwork laid by the mystical school of thought.

In the past, I have suffered some frustrations with my childrens' school teaching non-rationalist approaches to certain topics. I am so happy that the school presents Rav Mendel's statement regarding the purpose of learning Torah!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Gobsmacked

The other day I was speaking to an old friend of mine. While he is certainly not conventionally charedi, he learned in kollel for many years, lives in the heart of a charedi neighborhood, and sends his children to charedi schools. He voted UTJ in the last elections. I asked him who he's voting for in the forthcoming elections.

"Probably Lapid," he replied.

I was, to use the British expression, gobsmacked.

"Are you serious?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied. "Nobody has done more to help the charedim."


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rational Evaluations vs. Fundamentalist Commitments

In the lead-up to national elections in Israel, I've been noticing a stark contrast in how various parties and people approach different issues. There are those who weigh up a desired goal against its drawbacks, and there are those for whom the desired goal is so important that they pursue it regardless of its drawbacks. I would describe the latter as making fundamentalist commitments instead of rational evaluations.

While once could doubtless provide many examples of this, the one that I am thinking of is the all-important issue of territorial concessions. I heard a somewhat leftist politician, whom I admire in many ways, talk about how it is utterly unacceptable for Israel to rule over the Palestinians without giving them a vote. It endangers the democratic principles that we value so dearly. Therefore, this must come to an end.

Now, I fully agree that ruling over people without giving them a vote is a very bad situation. I fully agree that it endangers the democratic principles that we value so dearly. However, I find it disturbing that this is not weighed against the alternative. After all, we also value our lives very dearly. So if creating a Palestinian state is going to endanger our lives, well, I'd rather endanger our democratic values.

There's a lot of this going on. The Left talks as though the Right is entirely unaware, or entirely disputes, the notion that Israel's governing of the Palestinians is a terrible situation. But that's generally not the case at all. Many people on the Right fully agree that it's a terrible situation. But that doesn't mean that the alternative is necessarily better!

In some cases, one sees that people's fundamentalist commitments mean that they pursue their goal even when its consequences negate the very goal that they are trying to achieve. For example, many people talk about how we must give the Palestinians a state in order to avoid international isolation and condemnation. Now, of course it is important to avoid international isolation and condemnation. But will giving the Palestinians a state actually achieve that? In the short run, perhaps. However, in the long term, it appears that it will not significantly reduce it. As we have seen in Gaza, there is no way that Israel can defend itself against missiles launched from civilian areas without incurring international condemnation. And at least some Palestinians will certainly be launching missiles from civilian areas. Thus, even if a Palestinian state is created, Israel will still suffer from international condemnation.

It's not rational to condemn the current situation, or the current government's handling of the current situation, unless you have a better alternative.

I will wrap up this post with a video interview of Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon Abbas Zaki, revealing the Palestinian's true intentions with the Two State solution:

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How Can You Look Me In The Eye?

A full-page advertisement for the Adopt-a-Kollel organization presents a letter from the director with a heart-wrenching plea for help. "People don't have food. Literally. Children go hungry." The situation is awful.

And then the director asks: "How can you look a Rosh Kollel in the eyes when he says he has 12 children at home and cannot feed them breakfast?"

I must confess that I find the structure of this question deeply disturbing.

How can we look him in the eyes?!

This is a person who is the pinnacle of success in charedi society - a Rosh Kollel. And he can't even provide his children with food! But he's not seeking work that pays a wage, and probably doesn't have the education to get a decent job anyway. Instead, he's carrying on in his failed occupation. And, to make things twelve times worse, he is doubtless bringing up his twelve children in exactly the same failed way - without any secular education, and relentlessly taught that they should go to kollel rather than seek training and employment.

How can he look us in the eyes?! How can others be asked to fulfill his basic needs, when he is not taking the most basic steps to stop making this problem catastrophically worse?

I would gladly contribute generously to help someone who recognizes that this approach is wrong, and who is seeking employment, and more importantly who is raising his children on a path of education and employment. But how does it help to perpetuate a situation that is going to get twelve times worse with each generation?

The letter talks about the tragedy of kollels closing. But isn't that exactly what needs to happen? It's the proliferation of kollels that is causing this ever-worsening humanitarian disaster!

The letter shouts that "There must be a paradigm shift here in America and around the world!"

I fully agree. But I think that we're talking about a different kind of paradigm shift. If we seriously care about the future of our children, that's what it's going to take.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Charedi Female Empowerment?

Did you know that charedi society is big on women's liberation and female empowerment?

No, I didn't know that either. However, Agudath Israel's spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, makes precisely such a claim!

In an article in the Forward entitled "How Ultra-Orthodoxy Is The Most Feminist Faith," Rabbi Shafran opens by discussing the economic catastrophe of charedi society. To his credit, he does not deny its existence, and he even admits that much of the wider alarm about this is clearly due to concern about its ramifications for wider society, rather than being due to irrational anti-charedi hatred.

Unfortunately, he presents the false claim that the charedi dedication to mass-kollel is due to the fact that they "sincerely and strongly believe that it constitutes a powerful spiritual merit for the protection of Klal Yisrael." This is something that I have shown on several other occasions to be false - they go to kollel entirely for other reasons, and they do not at all seriously believe that it provides a powerful spiritual protective merit.

Rabbi Shafran also claims that charedim, in response to government cutbacks in financial aid (due to the terrible state of the budget), "rather than rise up and rebel, have simply lowered their living standards accordingly." I found that odd, because to the best of my recollection, charedim most definitely did rise up and rebel, shutting down streets with mass rallies, protesting the government to be Amalek and suchlike.

Anyway, let's get to the main point. The purpose of Rabbi Shafran's article is to argue against the claim that charedi women are oppressed. Rabbi Shafran argues that women's empowerment is linked to their becoming wage-earners, and decreasing economic dependence on their husbands. He points to the very high employment rate of charedi women, particularly in hi-tech, as proof that charedi women are empowered and liberated. Rabbi Shafran claims that they are proudly prepared to "juggle families and professions" in order to enable their husbands to learn Torah.
Really?
First of all, empowerment means giving women the choice to pursue a career, not forcing them to do so. Charedi girls are relentlessly indoctrinated throughout their school years to believe that they must work very hard in order to support their husbands in kollel. And they have very little choice in the matter, given that their husbands are conditioned to have no secular education and no desire to work.

Second, the womens' empowerment movement had to confront the difficulties of juggling families and career, and it is generally recognized that aside from exceptional people, it is often very hard to fully pursue both. But charedi women are firmly taught that they must have as many children as possible, aside from shouldering virtually the entire financial burden. This creates enormous strain.

Third, it is not as though charedi women are empowered to choose whatever career they want, or to choose careers that require a full academic education. They can't become doctors or lawyers or therapists. Both Litvishe leader Rav Steinman and Shas leader Rav Shalom Cohen have prohibited girls from getting academic degrees. They are expected to shoulder the financial burden of raising a large family on a single income without even having proper academic qualifications.

Fourth, it is not as though charedi women are empowered in non-financial ways. They are expected to obey their husbands. They do not have any Knesset representation. There is a shocking report that charedi women are ranked eighth in Israel for life expectancy, while charedi men are ranked second. The low life expectancy of charedi women, coupled with their much-higher-than-average rate of breast cancer, was the subject of a special Knesset hearing. The charedi MKs didn't show up to the hearing. A group of charedi women, bitter at what they describe as the charedi woman's life of slavery, launched a political party to represent their interests, because charedi MKs won't do so. A prominent member of the charedi establishment responded by issuing ugly threats against them. Strangely, none of this was mentioned in Rabbi Shafran's article.

Rabbi Shafran cites the hard-working woman of the Eishes Chayil prayer, who engages in agriculture and trade, as the traditional model that the charedim are following. (Let's leave aside the fact that charedim usually claim that this entire prayer, like Shir HaShirim, isn't actually talking about women at all.) But the traditional Jewish woman was certainly not forced to be the sole breadwinner for the family! The charedi system has overturned the traditional roles of husbands and wives, enshrined in the kesubah and in millennia of halachah and Jewish history.

Charedi women are indoctrinated and forced to work as hard as possible, while raising as many children as possible, to support husbands that are going against their traditional, Torah-prescribed duty to support their families, and they are still treated like second-class citizens. "Charedi female empowerment"? Don't make me laugh.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Death of a Hero CORRECTED

The courts last week officially declared erratic millionaire Guma Aguiar, who went missing from his boat over two years ago, to be dead. Although Aguiar's deep pockets basically funded the campaign against my books ten years ago, he had no idea that this was happening, and I was greatly saddened when he disappeared. Aguiar, a deeply troubled person who suffered from severe mental health problems, performed a tremendous service to the Jewish People. He helped take down one of the most powerful, manipulative and evil people ever to go by the title "rabbi": Leib Tropper.

For those who don't know the infamous story, Aguair, along with his billionaire uncle Tom Kaplan, somehow fell under Tropper's spell many years ago. Tropper, a rabbi from Monsey with a long history of sordid allegations against him, came up with a scheme to take control of all conversions to Judaism, worldwide, under the name Eternal Jewish Family (EJF).

Before Kaplan and Aguair realized that there was something very wrong with Tropper, he directed millions of dollars of their money to rabbonim and Gedolim. Tropper gave large donations to their yeshivos, and he flew them to super-luxurious hotels for conversion conferences. In return, these Gedolim and rabbonim granted Tropper great honor and power. Rav Elyashiv's court, Rav Moshe Shapiro, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and many others were all beneficiaries of Tropper, even honoring him by flying out to attend a wedding that he made.  

EJF claimed to be ensuring strict universal standards for conversions. But what was actually going on? The facts were murky and unpleasant. There were cases of EJF causing tremendous grief to converts and trying to retroactively annul some conversions on dubious grounds. EJF declared that rabbinic judges who believed that there was an age of dinosaurs were disqualified. Meanwhile, there were many reports that EJF was accepting certain other candidates who lacked even minimal knowledge and commitment to Judaism. There was allegations of some really terrible things taking place. And what was going on with the millions of dollars that Tropper was passing around? But Tropper was untouchable.

A few people realized that there was something badly wrong going on. The late and great Rav Aba Dunner, Executive Director of the Conference of European Rabbis, tried to blow the whistle. He later wrote as follows:
We found him to be a control freak and a megalomaniac, we found him to be so disrespectful of Rabbanim that there was a unanimous vote of the standing committee to make sure that he and his organization do not enter Europe...
The EJF refers cases which it claims are ready for giur to a small beis din that will accept their recommendation when a larger more established beis din would not consider the case in any way suitable. (additionally the EJF besmirches the name of botei din with track records measured in decades and whose credentials are impeccable but who have the temerity to question their judgment and qualifications) Rabbonim from small towns across the USA were continually surprised over the last few years that intermarried couples who they reckoned were unready for giur - even though they might qualify with a year or two of work - were leaving town and returning a month or two later having been converted through an EJF recommendation and officially having been mentored successfully by the EJF . In many of these instances the levels of observance were insufficient to start with and diminished subsequently with many ending up only nominally practicing Jews.
To burnish their credentials as the only chareidi purveyors of geirus, the game plan was to present themselves as the most chareidi organization out there by buying their way into the chotzer of the Gedolim by giving kickbacks to the various individuals who attempt to surround the Gedolim. By steady drip feeding of a few thou here and there to help with a chasuna or pay off some choivos or support a pet project, Tropper managed to buy his way in and then parade his ability to get photo ops as if that made him a ne'emon of the Gedolim. The story that he was telling was that all botei din and mekarvim in the USA were not to be trusted with the future of klal yisroel and only someone with his dikduk bemitzvos particularly in the areas of kiruv was in the position to handle it properly. This from a man whose personal habits until this time had been a matter of concern to all who knew the facts...
But outside of Europe, nobody listened to Rav Dunner.

I also tried to sound the alarm. From my investigations of Tropper's role in getting my books banned, I had discovered that he was a dishonest manipulator. And the way that he was wielding power in conversions was deeply disturbing. In November 2009, I wrote a blog post, Rabbi Leib Tropper and EJF, in which I called for something to be done. But who was going to listen to someone like me, when Tropper was directing millions of dollars to yeshivos?

Enter Guma Aguiar.

Aguiar had discovered that the millions of dollars that he had given to Tropper to distribute had not reached their intended goals. Aguiar's wish was for the money to be evenly distributed among a range of charitable institutions, and to rabbis representing a broad spectrum of ideologies. But Tropper had only given money to certain extremist charedi rabbonim (which just so happened to be the rabbonim that signed the ban on my books). Aguiar was furious. He confronted Tropper at the Jerusalem Citadel Hotel, demanding to know where his millions had gone. It seems that some sort of physical altercation ensued, which resulted in Tropper filing a police complaint against Aguiar. Aguiar responded by filing suit in the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court against Tropper.

But Tropper's downfall took place in a different way. In November 2009, recordings circulated on the internet that contained conversations between Tropper and a woman whose conversion he had been supervising, which revealed that Topper was attempting to force women into engaging in forbidden activities with himself and others. (According to my sources, Tropper was attempting to convince women that concubinage was permissible.) There was also video footage, taken with a hidden camera, which was leaked to YouTube. The press had a field day.

Tropper had finally fallen, and EJF quickly folded. As far as I know, it was never disclosed who had arranged for the secret recordings. Aguiar was an obvious candidate, having both the motive and means, and I received a report that Aguiar had indeed claimed responsibility for it. Subsequently, however, I discovered that a different party was responsible for arranging the recordings. But Aguiar did have a role in leaking the recordings, which created the public pressure that brought Tropper down. In doing this, Aguiar performed a tremendous service to our nation.

Tropper, by the way, is down but not out. He framed his apology in a way that would allow him to later deny that he had admitted to any wrongdoing. He still has followers who believe that he is innocent of any wrongdoing and that Aguiar faked the tapes. He is flooding the internet with material praising him, to try to drown out the stories about his misdeeds. He published a new sefer, Taharas Yisrael, and was honored by the grandson of Rav Elyashiv. He is trying to rebuild his power base.

Troppergate remains as one of the greatest demonstrations of the folly of the contemporary incarnation of "Daas Torah." This was a man who for decades was described as a manipulator and worse. It wasn't difficult to see that there was something fishy about him. And yet he was given incredible power and prestige in the charedi world, because he bought almost everyone off and pretended to be super-frum. And the Gedolim never condemned him even after the tapes, and even though he still exerts influence. Hey, it's not as though he is doing something really terrible, like writing an accurate biography of the Gedolim, or telling people that there was an age of dinosaurs, or having a hip chassidishe concert in Madison Square Gardens!

If only Guma Aguiar were still around. But he was suffering terribly, from severe bipolar disorder. May he rest in peace.

Further Reading:
Tablet Magazine: Con Game
Rationalist Judaism: Tropper, EJF and the Gedolim
A long list of posts at Failed Messiah documenting Tropper's various misdeeds (Note: I am not a big fan of Failed Messiah, who has, amongst other things that I dislike, written posts trashing me. But you can't deny the value of the service that he performs, which isn't being done by anyone else.)

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