Thursday, March 31, 2005


Comments to posts on this site are now enabled on a trial basis. I welcome comments, although it may not be possible for me to respond to all of them. Comments deemed inappropriate may be deleted.

And You Shall Choose Life

Hard cases make bad law, never more so than when ideology accompanied by passion distorts judgment. There are no winners in the Terri Schiavo case, but plenty of bad law, including the wrongful intrusion by Congress and the President and the wrongful exclusion of her parents from the determination of their daughter's fate. This is a case that will echo for a long while. An incompetent woman has become a pawn in the intensifying conflict between social conservatives with their religious agenda and liberals with their secular agenda.

Although under halacha or Jewish religious law there may be wiggle room permitting action or inaction that hastens death, removing feeding tubes and bringing about death through an extended period of starvation and dehydration is not such an occasion. While we may not require measures that prolong life, we do not under halacha allow steps whose sole purpose is to terminate life. What this woman has been subjected to is cruel and unusual, even if it does not constitute punishment, and this judgment is not altered by medical testimony that she has not experienced pain as her life ebbs away. Is it possible to know whether someone in her situation is free of pain?

Irrespective of our ideological orientation, we should be able to agree that starving people to death is not moral. Regrettably, the Schiavo case has been beclouded as she became the rallying cry of those who ardently proclaim the right to life even as they ardently champion policies that are flagrantly anti-life. I refer not to public issues such as the environment where the nexus between policy and protection of life may be viewed as distant. There are other examples. How telling it is that those who champion life are the strongest supporters of the National Rifle Association. Were the lives of the many innocent people who have been murdered because of NRA's pro-gun crusade any less worthy of protection than Terri Schiavo's?

What about the sick and elderly whose health is endangered because they cannot get affordable drugs from Canada? Or the lives that might be saved through stem cell research? Choosing life is not a selective process that is subject to ideological whims, yet it seems that those who are most vociferous in proclaiming the right to life are concerned about life at the time of conception and as death approaches but have little regard for what happens to human beings in between.

The moral hypocrisy of pro-lifers is breathtaking. Of course, two wrongs never make a right and strange bedfellows are part of the human condition. The company we keep in advocating against starving anyone to death should not deter us from taking the position that we believe to be morally right. What makes the Schiavo case more compelling is her husband's untrustworthiness - she obviously did not give instructions that she be allowed to starve to death - and also the plea of her parents that they be granted custody. I recognize that under Florida law the husband is the legal guardian, that many courts have diligently reviewed the case and that Congressional intervention was cynical. But even if the law supports Michael Schiavo, his actions were immoral, so that while state and federal courts reached the right result under existing law, the outcome is immoral.

The Schiavo case is the tip of a quickly expanding legal and social iceberg as technology, medical advances and raised socio-economic standards have resulted in a remarkable increase in life expectancy, a development that has enormous moral, financial and other practical consequences. Oregon's law sanctioning assisted suicide is before the Supreme Court. Whatever the outcome, there will be other cases, other conflicts. In view of the split in public opinion and divisions among those who are referred to as ethicists as to what constitutes ethical behavior in medical situations, it's a certainty that there will be a stream of quality of life issues.

As society attempts to grasp increasingly complex issues, the presumption should be in favor of life. While living wills are not likely to become standard fare and they will not resolve all situations, their use should be strongly encouraged, thereby limiting the role and discretion of legal guardians. Where legal guardians are authorized to make decisions on behalf of severely incapacitated persons who have not left written instructions, courts should weigh the totality of circumstances and allow directly related persons such as parents or siblings to take responsibility. A particularly painful element in the Schiavo affair is that inadvertently the parents have been regarded as interlopers. As we know, the husband has another family and if this isn't sufficient cause to question his guardianship, we might reflect on the unbearable pain suffered by parents who hopelessly stand by as their daughter is starved to death.

We hear much about quality of life, a term that is employed by advocates of assisted suicide or other measures that terminate life. The phrase is elastic and highly subjective, yet that isn't its primary defect. In the U.S. alone, there are countless millions whose quality of life is quite poor, the great many who are seriously ill and the great many who are frail and elderly. There are those who are severely handicapped and others who are mentally incapacitated. In a blink of the eye, the dubious concept of quality of life has become something of a signal as to how we should look at such people.

Persons of religious faith do not look at life solely in physical or even rational terms. There are spiritual elements that cannot be easily articulated, if only because they run counter to the rationalist grain that is ingrained in us. A feature of this spiritual dimension is to let life run its natural course, perhaps so that we may understand that we who are competent and blessed with a high quality of life are as finite in this world as those who aren't as blessed.

Have We Become Right-Wingers?

I understand why many, perhaps most, Orthodox Jews have come to reject liberal positions on a number of public issues. In some instances, such as abortion, there is conflict between what halacha requires and what is essentially being embraced by people of a liberal orientation. More generally, there is disagreement over the role of religion in society, particularly in what is referred to as the public square. Finally, there is that nebulous term called "values" which was a feature of the recent presidential election and subsequent political analysis.

But if Orthodox Jews reject liberalism, does this mean that we need to or should reject liberal policies on a number of public and social issues where there are no clear halachic requirements? As an illustration, are we to reject what liberals advocate regarding a minimum wage? I don't know a single Orthodox Jew who can make do on what is now the minimum wage. What about racism? Or the environment which encompasses a number of increasingly frightening concerns? I could readily give other examples.

And even if we are not comfortable with anything espoused by liberals, shouldn't it be sufficient - and probably religiously correct - to eschew all ideologies? Yet, it is evident that a great number of Orthodox Jews are comfortable with the right-wing. They agree with the right-wing on gun control. What is emerging is an increasingly expanding comfort zone between Orthodox Jews and right-wingers. Are we forgetful of history? Do we delude ourselves and forget that those on the right include far too many who have articulated anti-Semitic views? Are we forgetful of what Jews experienced for centuries at the hands of devout Christians?

I am not advocating that we come out against the right or become liberals. I am advocating that we be true to Judaism and recognize that halacha is our guide, not any political ideology.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Jewish War Against Religion

Which geniuses at the American Jewish Congress decided that it is a good idea to challenge on First Amendment grounds Notre Dame University's participation in the AmeriCorps national service program for college-age youth? AmeriCorps is a highly-regarded initiative which provides modest stipends to those who perform community service, including teaching. The law establishing the program stipulates that funding cannot be used "to provide religious instruction, conduct worship services, or engage in any form of proselytization."

This is not good enough for AJC's separation of church and state extremists. They hauled Notre Dame, a participating institution, and AmeriCorps into federal court in Washington, getting from a district judge summary judgment in AJC's favor. On March 8, in a decision that has gotten zero attention in Jewish media and little attention elsewhere, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed, ruling in language that strikes me as dismissive that the program does not violate the establishment clause when participants engage in secular activity at an educational institution that has a religious orientation.

Why did AJC go to court against a major Catholic university with a strong liberal tradition and against a program that, at most, has a negligible connection to religion? The organization has shown in recent years flexibility in church-state matters, departing from the rigidity that long was its hallmark. Interestingly, the key lawyer for AJC's Commission on Law and Social Action was not on the organization's brief to the Court of Appeals. Can it be that the decision to litigate was something of a rogue action by some AJCers?

In the reckoning of religious-group membership, the figure usually given for American Jews is between five and six million. This is way off the mark, for half of those who are included scarcely consider themselves to be Jewish. As for the other half, the majority are secular in orientation and increasingly removed from traditional Jewish practices and beliefs. Among those who continue to identify themselves as Jews, quite a few are hostile to religion. The AJC lawsuit is one of many current examples of the anti-religious strain and stain in Jewish life. It's not only that we do not practice and we do not believe, too many American Jews do not respect the right of others to practice their religion.

In the obvious tension between the two religion clauses in the First Amendment - free exercise and establishment - free exercise generally loses out. Organized American Jewry has cared preciously little about this clause and has shirked its obligation to defend this fundamental right.

In the Ten Commandments case now before the Supreme Court, the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups submitted briefs arguing against any public display, as if such an innocuous action constitutes an establishment of religion. The Siyum Hashas (completion of the Talmud) ceremony at Madison Square Garden took place the evening before the Supreme Court heard arguments in this case. In a gesture demonstrating how it is truly tolerant of those who go to court against religion, Agudath Israel sat the head of the ADL in an honored place next to Mayor Bloomberg.

In the numerous zoning battles synagogues and day schools have faced in dozens of communities, far more often than not their opponents are secular Jews. In a major zoning case in the New York metropolitan area that is now in federal court, one of the main opponents of a Modern Orthodox day school is a top person at Federation. Fifty years ago, Philip Roth portrayed this reality in his notable story, "Eli the Fanatic."

Today's Jewish fanatics are those secularists who use the First Amendment as both a cover and club for their antipathy to religion. These are people who are on a mission and it is not to advance Jewish life but to harm it. Those who oppose allowing religion a neutral and very minimal place in the public square have not changed their tune for at least two generations, even as secular Jews are willing and eager to jettison nearly all that has enriched and sustained Jewish life for generations.

At a time when on such hot-button issues as gay rights and abortion there is a willingness on the part of many proponents to rethink their strategy and to moderate their message, if only because of what transpired in November, our secularists stay the course, seeking to ferret out every imagined act that might show public tolerance of religion. At least the fellow who brought the Pledge of Allegiance case was open about his anti-religious sentiments.

American Jewry is on a collision course with America. For all of their invocation of religion, most Americans are not a particularly religious people. Like most people elsewhere, they want to have faith in an ideal that transcends their everyday experiences and this somewhat emotional desire is formulated in a mostly symbolic attachment to religion. When organized Jewry opposes this sentiment, we are going against the grain of what most Americans want. In the process, we are becoming marginalized.

A high cost is being exacted as a consequence of our intransigence. Jews have significant influence on the Democratic Party and on the course of liberalism, both of which have lost their way because of an inability to adjust and to understand that man does not live by bread alone, that people want to believe and that the war against religion is alienating many.

The Jewish war against religion is dangerous because it may compromise support for Israel. It could be that no matter how steadfast we are in fighting against religion, social conservatives who are primarily Christian will continue to embrace Israel because the Jewish state is the fulfillment of their theology. This is a big maybe and we are taking a huge risk.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Rav Aharon Kotler And Rav Soloveitchik

I am writing to protest in the strongest terms the falsehood directed against the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood and Rav Soloveitchik. The falsehood is directed against both of them because it is equally wrongful to write that Rav Aharon Kotler said something that he never said and that Rav Soloveitchik was denigrated by him. It is known that Rav Aharon gave a shiur at Yeshiva in the mid-1930's and that for whatever reasons, the experience left him with a negative feeling about the institution. It is also obvious that he did not accept the notion that at the Beth Medrash level, limudei kodesh should be combined with secular studies. But to claim that he spoke so negatively about Rav Soloveitchik is to distort the truth. While such terms as apikursos and minus were often used by him, to my knowledge he did not refer to aspects of American Jewish life that he did not accept by using the term tumah. There are now four volumes of his discourses and much other material and one will not find a single negative word about Rav Soloveitchik in any of this.

Indeed, throughout much of the last ten years of his life, the great Rosh Yeshiva endeavored to maintain contact with Rav Soloveitchik who was quite helpful in the early years of Chinuch Atzmai. As I noted last week in a Cross-Currents posting, Rav Soloveitchik was the featured speaker at the first Chinuch Atzmai dinner and I believe that he spoke at a subsequent dinner. If Rav Aharon felt about him as described by an anonymous blogger, do you think that he would have asked him to be the guest speaker?

There is more to say about this matter, but I will limit my words in the hope that the falsehood that has been spread will be withdrawn. I will conclude with a poignant incident that I was witness to toward the end of Rav Soloveitchik's life. On a hot and humid night - I think it was a Tuesday - during the shiva for Rav Shneuer Kotler, I was at his home in Lakewood when at around 8 pm in the evening a car pulled up in front of the house. Several men got out and virtually carried Rav Soloveitchik who was quite frail by then into Rav Shneuer's home. He sat next to Rav Malkiel Kotler and said the following: "I was a friend of your grandfather, I was a friend of your father and I will be your friend." When Rav Soloveitchik died, I called Rav Malkiel Kotler and asked that he go to the funeral in Boston as an expression of hakoras hatov. He responded that I was right that he should go and then told me why he could not do so.

Do We Still Care About Day Schools?

When I visited the Shalom Torah Day School in Old Bridge, New Jersey, in June 2003, the school was a collection of unattractive trailers with an enrollment of about one-hundred. Three months later, Shalom which is noted for its effective outreach, was in an impressive new building in Marlboro, built by my friend Yossi Stern in memory of his father. I wrote at the time that the facility would serve as an instrumentality for outreach to unaffiliated and marginally involved Jewish families. Today, Shalom enrolls 240 and there is talk of expansion.

That's the good news, demonstrating once more that day school education is our most effective tool for bringing Jewish families back to Judaism.

This fundamental principle was like a mother's milk to an infant when great Orthodox leaders established and nurtured the day school movement. Nowadays, basic religious education gets much lip service and little practical support. Day schools are regarded as a consumer product, the obligation of parents and not of the community. Most of these schools are in great difficulty, with their faculty being badly underpaid and often not paid in a timely way, vital educational services not being provided, psychological services not being provided and their facilities being inadequate and poorly maintained.

There was a key exception in Orthodox ranks to the consumerist mentality in the support given to outreach schools and those that serve immigrant populations. But this is changing. With the notable exception of Lev Levayev's tuition-free (at least so far) Gymnasia in Queens, nearly all immigrant/outreach day schools are in trouble. Between 1998 and 1993, overall day school enrollment grew by 11%, but in the immigrant/outreach sector it declined by 7%. A Queens school, established in 1965, with a strong record of outreach is closing in June, while two important Brooklyn outreach schools are sharply cutting back. It is likely that there will be additional bad news in this sector.

Efforts will be made, of course, to transfer the students in the affected institutions to comparable day schools, yet the likelihood is that some will be lost altogether. Inevitably, fewer schools will mean fewer children getting a meaningful religious education.

Demographic changes account for some of the bad news. In some communities, with the aging of the Jewish population there are fewer children of school age. There are families that move away and this clearly affects enrollment. Competition from newer schools is another factor. In the five-year period covered by my recent day school census, nearly 150 or 20% of all day schools experienced enrollment declines and another 30 closed. It remains that what is happening in the immigrant/outreach sector constitutes a significant and unhappy development in day school education.

When a school closes, the loss is felt. What we do not sense - and for good reason - are the losses resulting from the unavailability of day schools in areas that are underserved. In the New York metropolitan area there are huge chunks of Jewish population for whom there is no day school that meets the situation and needs of families that are not observant but which would consider a day school such as Shalom Torah. Children that never were in day school and schools that were never opened do not make it onto our spiritual radar screen.

Embedded in the day school movement during its formative years was the understanding that chinuch (religious education) and kiruv (outreach) needed to be linked and that this linkage would bring about transformative results in greater religiosity in Jewish homes. This understanding was a principle of faith in the Orthodox day school world. Paradoxically, the development and relative success of kiruv has in an unintended way undermined day schools as instrumentalities of outreach. Kiruv has become a distinct activity, separate from day schools, not only in the institutional sense but in the more important sense that the primary focus has been on adults.

With the exception of Chabad and a small number of day schools, the chinuch-kiruv linkage has evaporated. This has hurt day schools immensely, if only because there is greater excitement in many communities about kiruv and too little concern about chinuch. In my view, the effectiveness of kiruv has been reduced.

As I have lamented, day schools are now regarded as a product or service to be paid for by parents. Outreach is understandably viewed as the agent for Judaic transformation. This helps to explain, but not fully, why Torah Umesorah-the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools has shifted its focus. The decline of Torah Umesorah as a vital force in day school education is a painful subject, especially for me. This is an issue that needs to be faced by the yeshiva world which from the outset has assumed primary responsibility for an organization that once was a treasure of American Jewish life but which has badly lost its way. If yeshiva deans are unwilling to face this reality, the organization will continue to decline. Worse yet, additional children will be deprived of their heritage.

When the New York Federation shamefully terminated basic grants to yeshivas and day schools, Torah Umesorah stood mute, as if what happened was someone else's problem. It has gone the way of all organizational flesh, indulging in frivolities that are being marketed as the fulfillment of its mission. One such example is a weekend in a posh hotel for affluent Orthodox; another is a three-day excursion of principals to Israel. There is no message and there hasn't been for years that support for basic Torah education is a communal obligation.

This is a tragedy. The leaders of the yeshiva world need to return the organization to the vision of their great predecessors. A good place to start is the establishment of a network of schools in the New York area that follow the wonderful example of Shalom Torah Centers. This goal can be readily reached, provided that we sufficiently care.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Matzitza B'peh

On March 4, 2005 Agudath Israel sent a letter to Dr. Tom Frieden, New York City's Health Commissioner, estimating that in the yeshiva world half of the brisim have been conducted with matzitza b'peh, while the other half have utilized a tube. In Modern Orthodox and even Centrist Orthodox circles, overwhelmingly the brisim have been with a tube.

The statistics cast a certain light on the issue that is now raging in certain Orthodox circles. I am not concerned here at all with what a particular Rabbi or Mohel may have done or said. What I am concerned about are the statements signed by dozens of Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbonim and published in Yated Ne'eman and on public posters denouncing the failure to do matzitza b'peh. The language is nearly violent.

Are we being told that half the brisim in the yeshiva world were not properly conducted? Are the signers of these statements unaware of the fact that, for example, the Breuer's community does not sanction matzitza b'peh? Isn't it likely that virtually all the signers have been at brisim where a tube is used? Isn't it likely that some of the signers served as the sandek or some other important function at brisim where tubes were used?

The issue of safeguards against the transmission of disease is not a trivial matter. Of course, I feel strongly that those who prefer matzitza b'peh should be allowed to go forward without government interference. But we must be cognizant of the reality that there are now powerful viruses that are transmitted through what seems to be quite innocuous contact. When we go into food establishments, we see workers wearing latex gloves. Are they wearing them because they want to help the latex glove industry? In hospitals and medical offices, there is scarcely a procedure anymore without such gloves being worn. Obviously, there are legitimate concerns that have generated changing practices. At the least, we need to be cognizant that those who prefer to use a tube in a bris have good grounds for this preference.

There is a second issue. Forty years ago I wrote an article for Jewish Life (then the publication of the Orthodox Union) called "The New Style of Orthodox Jewry." This was a landmark article indicating how the Orthodox were breaking away in communal activity from the dominant pattern of the non-Orthodox. If I had to write an article in 2005 on the new style of Orthodox Jewry, I would have to focus on the proclivity for prohibitions, for statements signed by rabbis taking positions that are untenable, for constantly harsh language that is critical of what many and perhaps most Orthodox Jews are doing.

As I have written often, in the great formative years of American Orthodoxy, when we were blessed with true Torah giants, prohibitory statements were rare and they were reserved for major issues. Each day now, we tragically see what we have lost. We tragically see, as Rav Schach, ztl, said in his remarkable hesped for Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, the period of the Acharonim has come to an end.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

There is Glory in the Jewish People

There is glory in the Jewish people in the completion of the ArtScroll English-language edition of the Babylonian Talmud and there is glory in the Jewish people in the Siyum Hashas, the completion of another seven and one-half year cycle of daily study of a folio page of the Talmud that was celebrated last week by tens of thousands at Madison Square Garden and other locations. Linked as they are in time, these two magnificent occasions give each other spiritual sustenance, as Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and head of Agudath Israel graciously noted in his speech at the Siyum Hashas. The spiritual excitement generated by each completed cycle brings additional people to daily study and ArtScroll's masterwork makes such study more readily accessible.

We are witness to the fulfillment of the words sung as Torah scrolls are returned to the Ark. The Torah "is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy." Torah study is life-giving and the daily study of the Talmud provides an oasis of time that is life-transforming, transporting those who study into the lives of the transcendent Sages whose teachings comprise the Talmud and the great commentators who in each generation have explained and added to these teachings.

When we pray, for many - myself included - it is often difficult to concentrate fully on the text, to expel thoughts about what is going on elsewhere in our lives. Talmudic study is different. There is concentration, as the mind is focused - often intensely - on understanding and challenging what is being studied. We are engaged, as it were, in a conversation with the giants of the intellect and spirit who are our links to the heritage that extends from Sinai to the present.

The Talmud is an ancient work, completed about 1,500 years ago. Though its precise words are fixed, unlike classical works it remains an open document. When it is studied, students do not say that the Gemara (the main body of the Talmud) "said" or that a great authority "said" or "ruled." Their language is in the present, as in the frequent expression "Abaye says" or "Rava says." So it is with the commentaries: Rashi says and Tosafos say. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik beautifully captures this thought in his comment that during his period of study, Rambam and other great authorities are in the room with him.

The two coalescing occasions are instrumentalities for promoting religious Jewish unity, itself a paramount goal, for the ways of the Torah are pleasant and "all of its paths are peace." The program for the Siyum Hashas lists more than 600 daily study groups in North America across the spectrum of Orthodox life. The number has grown in the last week.

Each completed cycle commemorates the murder of our six million, more than one million of them children. Those who persecute Jews rightly view the Talmud as a source of our distinctiveness and survival. Twenty-four wagonloads containing thousands of volumes of the Talmud were publicly burned in Paris in 1242 and this was followed by centuries of additional burning and censorship that went hand in hand with other acts of persecution. Each Talmud cycle expresses the eternity of the Jewish people, of Am Yisroel Chai.

ArtScroll's achievements constitute an epic chapter in Jewish life, although astonishingly not a word about ArtScroll is found in Jonathan Sarna's American Judaism. The Stone Chumash is a monumental work. For good reason it has become the standard text in Orthodox synagogues and homes. I do not mean to denigrate any other English-language edition of the Talmud when I say that ArtScroll towers over all of the rest. The late Jerome Schottenstein had great vision and creativity when he endowed the project and family members who have provided continued support, including for a Hebrew-language edition and an English language edition of the Jerusalem Talmud, can take pride in what has been accomplished. The Schottensteins have pulled off one of the great coups in the history of Jewish philanthropy.

The seventy-three volumes of ArtScroll's Talmud are a model of clarity in language, high intellectual purpose and elevated aesthetics. The volumes are attractive and user-friendly and this for a text that is obviously arcane and often very difficult. Students with widely varying capabilities can make use of this edition. This is obviously true of those whose familiarity with the Talmud is limited, and it is true of those who are far more proficient as they come into contact with sources that would elude most of them, if only because of the limited time available for study.

Words of appreciation are too tepid an expression of gratitude to Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, ArtScroll's founders and creative force. What they have given the Jewish people is a blessing that shall continue to be heard in Jewish homes for generations. Of course, great praise is due to the many scholars and staff members who contributed to this magnificent project, as well as to the Yeshiva deans and eminent Rabbis who provided encouragement.

There are critics who contend that ArtScroll provides a crutch, that it eliminates the heavy lifting that is essential for growth in Talmudic proficiency. Ever since books have been printed, there have been religious Jewish reference and legal works that have been labeled as crutches and so ArtScroll has impressive company in this regard. For every person who uses its Talmud as a shortcut, there are many more for whom it is a stepping stone to consult other works, to grow in knowledge and skill and to add to the time devoted to Torah study.

When the Talmud is studied, we read a text read by Jews 100, 500 and 1,000 years ago and we ask questions that they asked and give explanations that they gave. One-hundred, 500 and 1,000 years from now, Jews will be studying the same texts and ask the same questions and give the same explanations.

There is glory in the Jewish people.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Census Of Jewish Day Schools

Inquiries have been made regarding my census of Jewish day schools in the United States, which was sponsored by The Avi Chai Foundation. The census is a follow-up to the comprehensive 1998-99 study of these schools.

The census covers the 2003-04 school year and is available online.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

More Fiction Posing as Fact

When novelists create stereotypical figures that distort Orthodox life, they claim that, after all, they're novelists who can write as they please. Academics and others who purport to describe the real religious Jewish world do not have this fig leaf to shield them when they are criticized because what they write is off the mark. It is hard to imagine any greater distortion of Orthodox reality than the pseudo-scholarship palmed off by Jacob Ukeles at the annual gathering of Edah, the ultra-Modern Orthodox fringe group.

Jewish survey research is in a sorry state. We have been presented dubious findings regarding Jews in the Former Soviet Union, American Jewish poverty and the impact of Israel experiences on Jewish identity. A top Jewish demographer told me that he once distorted data in order to achieve a desired result. We are increasingly subjected to numbers games impelled by ideology or some other pre-selected goal, in much the same way that pharmaceutical companies advertise that so many doctors prefer their product.

Ukeles' assertion that three-quarters of Orthodox households in the New York Federation service area are Modern Orthodox is based on seriously flawed methodology and is wrong. He isn't even close. In arriving at his absurd figure, Ukeles obliterates the Centrist Orthodox subcategory that is meaningful to many, including Rabbi Norman Lamm in his description of Yeshiva University and especially its highly regarded Rabbinical Seminary. He also departs from basic rules regarding the establishment of identity.

In determining political or religious affiliation or other categories of personal identity via quantitative research, the key determinant always is how people identify themselves. This inevitably results in some distortion, as when persons who violate Sabbath obligations identify themselves as Orthodox because of their synagogue affiliation. The National Jewish Population Surveys and the more sophisticated Guttman studies on the religious practices and beliefs of Israeli Jews rely on self-identity. In Guttman, this led to 'mapping sentences" or typologies encompassing a range of behavior and attitudes.

Ukeles did not ask Orthodox respondents which subcategory they identified with, an easy enough task. Had he done so, the findings would have been far more accurate and light years away from the erroneous data that is now posing as fact. He utilized a single issue - attitude toward college - as a litmus test and this produced bogus statistics. In Brooklyn, where last year 55,000 out of 67,000 dayschoolers were enrolled in charedi or fervently Orthodox schools, Ukeles claims that 55% of the Orthodox are in the Modern category. Dream on.

Whatever his reasons for abandoning self-identity, Ukeles should have constructed a typology encompassing a number of variables, including dress, education, associations, attitudes and much else. His reliance on a single factor severely distorts the results. He also doesn't understand how yeshiva-world Orthodox view higher education. Many attend Touro or other non-coeducational programs and otherwise tailored to their specifications. Few go to conventional undergraduate colleges such as those in the CUNY system. Many more utilize their seminary degrees to go directly to graduate or professional schools. In charedi circles, secular higher education is regarded as career-preparation.

Had Ukeles understood the place of college in the yeshiva world - but not in the Chassidic sector - he could have made the useful point that many of these Orthodox are to an extent affected by modernity, a development that I have underscored, most recently in a column on Internet use among charedim.

The suggestion to use attitude toward college as the litmus test came from Samuel Heilman, another Edah speaker and a man who has misrepresented Orthodox life. At Edah, as elsewhere, he deplored the "haredization" of the Orthodox, as if the fervently Orthodox are unsavory folks deserving of condemnation.

His overly pessimistic view of the Modern Orthodox is not supported by available evidence, including the seminary established by Avi Weiss, the vigorous role of Edah, indications that under Richard Joel Yeshiva University is moving away from the center and my day school census which shows a significant rise in enrollment at Modern Orthodox schools.

Heilman reprised at Edah an article published last year in the Jerusalem Post which managed to be both offensive and ignorant. Why do too many Modern Orthodox defect altogether? Because they are rebelling against pressure from the right and not, as scholars have noted, because this is an open society teeming with secular attractions. Why do some embrace greater religiosity? Not because they see the glory and valor of a more religious life but because of a charedi conspiracy. There is, in his words, a "complete handover" by Modern Orthodox families of educational responsibility to yeshivas and day schools whose Judaic faculty are charedi and these teachers are "agents provocateurs."

This is nonsense and offensive. Our Judaic teachers don't set the curriculum, nor do they determine school ambiance. Most are badly underpaid and most work with super-dedication. They deserve praise, not designation as agents provocateurs. If students are influenced by them, it is because of their piety and example. Heilman is also wrong about the involvement of parents. As veteran day school principals know, one of the sea changes in our schools is the expanding extent to which parents are actively involved in what their kids are doing in school.

It doesn't take courage to be modern and Orthodox and there is too much evidence that it doesn't take courage to traduce those who are Orthodox but are not modern. There is growing revulsion among the more than seventy-five percent of the Orthodox who do not identify themselves as Modern, including the Centrists, against the way these Jews are depicted in the media by fiction writers and by some who pose as scholars. No one is advocating that the Orthodox be immune from criticism. We are advocating truth in scholarship.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

RJJ Newsletter - March 2005 - Lay Leadership

Lay leadership or askanos, is a term that can be translated as the nearly all-consuming commitment to communal activity. An askan is someone whose primary life mission is service to the klal. In my youth, these terms - askanos and askan - were part of the ordinary religious Jewish lexicon. But no more. What has changed is more than usage, but the role of lay people in communal affairs.

Nowadays, we glorify check-writers and, at times, persons who devote themselves occasionally to good causes. We do not celebrate askanim because the breed is nearly extinct. There is, of course, merit to giving tzedakah or to spending a bit of time here and there on community needs. Unfortunately, our institutions and especially yeshivas and day schools require more. They need the involvement of lay people who eat, drink and sleep the needs of the community, people for whom other work is secondary.

The nature of communal activity has changed because our community has changed. Most of us are always busy. Family size has grown significantly and this inevitably brings additional responsibilities and time pressure. There are too many events to go to and too many tasks to get to. Nearly every day is a balancing act, a challenge to squeeze in more activity than we have time for. Mothers, so many of whom work, must find the time and energy to devote to their children and fathers want to find time for Torah study. Were it not for Shabbos, we would all be lost.

There is yet another factor. We do not value askanos, certainly not like we once did and certainly not to the extent that we value check-writing. What isn't highly valued does not attract. Apart from the good reasons why our schools (and other causes) put so much effort into fundraising and the wooing of check-writers, there is an attitude that the notion of lay leadership is something like an alien belief. For things large and small, including matters that are not halachic or hashkafic, the attitude is that Torah leaders alone can decide and the rest of us should be followers and workers, but not leaders.

There still are pockets of askanos but they are few and they are contracting. This is in contrast to the pattern that prevailed for generations in Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Europe and the pattern that prevailed during the formative years of American Orthodoxy when great Torah leaders, notably the transcendent Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, worked closely with lay people who had leadership roles. We now are enveloped in a mood or climate which discourages lay leadership, which says in effect that it isn't appropriate for people who are not Roshei Yeshiva or respected rabbis to make decisions for the community.

These factors contribute to the situation of many, perhaps most, of our institutions - again, primarily yeshivas and day schools - operating without the intensive involvement and commitment of people who can help with important tasks. The administrative staffs of our schools are too thin and often unprepared to deal with the serious financial and legal matters that inevitably arise from time to time. Because askanos is effectively discouraged, schools and institutions have diminished fundraising capacity. More importantly, they do not have available the creativity, experience, knowledge and talent of lay people who can make a huge difference. Far more often than not, the involvement of lay people has become a hit and run affair.

This is a more serious problem than nearly all of us recognize. Our schools are being hurt because they are bereft of effective lay leadership.