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Friday, May 27, 2011

24 Millions Israelis? -Parashat Bamidbar

What would life be like if the Jewish people were a large people? Instead of numbering 13 or 14 million, what if the Jewish people managed 25 or 30 million? How many more books would we publish? How many more scientists would we produce? Looking back, what new discoveries could have been made throughout the centuries if only we were a little larger, a little more secure?

Rabbi Isaac Herzog wrote the following in an essay published in 1929:
We have always been a numerically small people....When we bear this fact in mind, it may be relatively easy for us to establish that Jews have contributed as much to the sum total of scientific knowledge as could reasonably be expected from one, numerically small, people. Yet when all has been said, there can be but little doubt that, under more favorable conditions and circumstances, the total Jewish contribution would have been far richer in content and far higher in value than it actually has been.  (Judaism: Law and Ethics, Pages 150-151)
The last half-century has proved Rabbi Herzog quite correct in his assessment. Under favorable conditions and circumstances, both in Israel and in the West, Jews have written books without end. But can we do better?

Earlier this month, the United Nations revised its world population projections with some surprising results. If fertility rates remain constant, by the end of this century "Little Israel" may end up with a population of over 24 million! According to one analyst, by 2100, Israel may in fact have more young people ages 15-24 than neighboring countries such as Iran, Turkey, Spain, Italy or Germany. Moreover,"among the military powers in the Middle East, Israel will be the only one with a viable population structure by the middle of this century."

But we of all people should know that numbers are not everything. A motivated few can be more efficient than a listless thousand. This lesson is illustrated by a story in the Book of Samuel.

Towards the end of his life, King David, despite the peace of his realm, decided to conduct a census of the nation in order to create a standing army. 'Strength in numbers," as the saying goes. For this, he was chided by his general, Joab, and later punished by God:

In the words of Joab, 'Let the Lord, your God, add unto the people a hundredfold...but why should my lord, the king, delight in such a thing?' (2 Samuel 24, 3)

To delight in accomplishments, yes! To delight in weddings and births, this we shall do too! But to delight in numbers alone, this we do not do.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why Doesn't Someone Write a Tzniut Book for Men?

Most of the laws of modesty (Tzniut) pertain to a man's responsibilities regarding women, not the other way around.

Some obligations that men ought to abide by: Do not leer, do not gaze wantonly, do not fantasize, do not recite the Shema in front of one's wife if she is undressed.... (Cf. Berachot 24a; Shabbat 64b; Rambam Issurei Biah 21.2)

By way of comparison, the Tur (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher) devotes fourteen lines to a man's obligations to act modestly toward women (Even HaEzer 21.1) compared with just one line about how a woman should not visit the marketplace with her hair uncovered. (Ibid 21.2; Cf. Tur/Shulchan Aruch OH 75) One may add that there is also a notion that men should dress modestly as well. (Mishnah Berura 2:1; Igrot Moshe IV.3.68)

In light of all these laws, one would expect a few tomes for men that delineate "The Modest Way." Yet a perusal at the local Jewish bookstore finds that this is hardly the case. Here is an incomplete list of women's guides to staying under cover (with a few parenthetical comments):

1. Sometimes You Are What You Wear: A Guide to Tzniut" (Check out the catchy cover!)

2. Oz ve-hadar levushah: modesty, an adornment for life : halachos and attitudes concerning tznius of dress & conduct" (I am tired after the title, but it does cover everything.)
3. Reward of the Righteous Woman (A companion guide to 'The Merit of the Righteous Women'!)
4a. Just My Style: A Tznius Reader (Very posh.)
4b. Just My Style - New Edition - A Tznius Reader for Teens (So posh, it was republished.)
5. Outside/Inside: A Fresh Look at Tzniut (Tzniut is always fresh, for halacha is eternal.)
6. The Tznius Handbook: Education Diagrams for Women and Girls (Diagrams?!)
7. The Modest Way (With all the footnotes, this seems more of a guide for Rabbis. Note to rabbis: Vol III just came out.)
8. Daughters of Dignity - An Inspirational Learning Program of Hashkafa and Halachic Guidelines in the Noble Mitzvah of Tznius (Very dignified title.)
9.Seams and Souls - A Dressing, Altering, and Sewing Guide for the Modest Woman (Warning to Men: Do not give this as an engagement present or anniversary gift, it may cause an irreparable split.)
10. Halichos Bas Yisrael, 1 Vol. Edition: A Women's Guide to Jewish Observance (This one discusses laws besides modesty and comes with approbations from Gedolei Yisrael!)
11. The Wonder of Becoming You: How a Jewish Girl Grows Up

I should mention that I had some hope for finding a man's guide when I saw the title, "Finding the Woman of Valor"--but to my disappointment it turned out to be a commentary on the Song of Songs. But the matter is a serious one. Blog or not, let's finish with some sobriety.

Why is there this incredible stress on educating women vis-a-vis modesty, while so little energy is expended on educating men? Are Jewish men so good and valorous that they never leer or gaze or have inappropriate thoughts? Correspondingly, are Jewish women so lustful and risque that if they are not told repeatedly to cover up, well, that will be the end of Jewish ethics and Jewish values?

Fahkerht! One would think the opposite is more likely. It is probably much easier for a woman to dress modestly than for a man to keep his eyes focused on his New York Times and his mind clear of inappropriate thoughts. And it is for good reason that the Tur expends all that energy warning men to keep their eyes on their wives.... So how have we gotten to this point? I don't know, but here we are...

Same News...Different Site

The overlap in modern news media is so extensive that it is very easy to read the same article six times in six different newspapers or web information venues. The AP or Reuters will sell the same piece to the New York Times, LA Times, the Guardian, Haaretz, and so on. It's gotten to the point where Foxnews and CNN (Right and Left) will publish the same stories on a daily basis...making a joke of a commoner's attempt to glean different views from different venues.

Here is a simple experiment that you can try by Googling an AP story. I just Googled the following:
"Libyan Premier Says He's Ready to Talk." Original AP Article
And here are some other places that it came up:
The Sydney Morning Herald

It used to be that the New York Times and Washington Post and CNN would have their own reporters embedded in the same locale filing stories for their employers, but as advertisements have fallen and newspapers are reigning in the costs, major media outlets cannot afford to splurge. The sad part of all this is that the Internet, which ought to make the plethora of the world's voices accessible is simultaneously responsible for narrowing the voices being heard. We hear the same views over and over again, the same political slants...It is hard to believe that this bodes well for the future of the fourth estate.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Finally, Some Positive Demographic News for Israel

From the Asia Times Online:

Israel as Middle Eastern hegemon
By Spengler

Like the vanishing point in a perspective painting, long-term projections help us order our perceptions of what we see in front of us today. Here's one to think about, fresh from the just-released update of the United Nations' population forecasts: At constant fertility, Israel will have more young people by the end of this century than either Turkey or Iran, and more than German, Italy or Spain.

Click here to

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why not go back to Israel’s 63BC lines?

If you have never heard of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer--I'll forgive you, as His Grace has been dead for close to 500 years. But the fellow who writes a blog using the latter's name as a pseudonym is very much alive. And I would wager he is one of the wittiest conservative thinkers out there, whether in the UK or the USA. (Now that I think of it, Father Richard John Neuhaus was pretty witty...)
Anyway, check out this recent blog: Why not go back to Israel’s 63BC lines? as well as his coverage of President Obama's visit to England.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Conscience of Kosher: Baby Moses, Bugs, and an Eight Dollar a Plate Wedding

(I have to apologize for my absence. I was away in New York and did not think to leave a note. As usual, my thoughts today are more impressionistic than objective.)

Thursday 11pm. Central Avenue, The Five Towns, New York.

My brother and I walked into a kosher shwarma shop filled with men and meat. There are Yeshiva students and Kollelman and several middle-aged fathers treating their middle-school sons.

A spit of Shwarma turns slowly, dripping fat and grease. A mist of vapor wafts from a vat of cholentbeef-chunks and bone jutting from the surface. Yet my eye is drawn to the cashier's counter where several hundred pigs-in-a-blanket rest tantalizingly on a large baking tray. In Hebrew--and to avoid aspersions to pork--the expression is Moshe b'Tayvah: 'Moses in his Basket.' And after my long and nearly food-less flight from Los Angeles, it was with great difficulty that I fought the urge to stretch forth my hand over the Nile and to adopt just one little Moses. But I remembered the Law engraved in stone: Thou Shall Not Steal.

Meanwhile, it was not a moment after this resolution had begun to chasten the growling protests of my stomach that I witnessed (to my horror and sickening jealousy) the hand of another stretch forth and snatch a piping hot Moses and pop the blanket (pastry crust, sausage and all) into a bearded mouth.

My brother turned to the Cashier: "Are they free?"

"No, 50 cents each."

Another customer spoke: "What if I just take one?"

The cashier, perhaps seeing the shadow of club and caveman in his customer's meat-crazed eyes, muttered. "Just make sure its only one."

But the flood-banks had been opened. Another hand darted in and kidnapped a Moses. My brother looked at me: "No wonder why they're 50 cents each."

I decided to buy two, one for each of us. I don't like having to overpay on account of others' indiscretions. But it seemed right to reward self-control with sausage.

Later, while waiting for a grilled chicken laffa at the pick-up counter, I observed another hand reach over the counter and sink into a large bowl of fries. I stared at this fellow, shocked by how a single individual can have so little respect for ownership, propriety, or even modern hygiene. He must have registered something of my horror. "Why are you looking at me as if I am crazy?" he asked. He had a point. In the city of the insane, the man who takes his medication is thought to be mad.

The following day, my brother and I went Jewish book hunting in Borough Park. My brother considers most of Brooklyn to be a giant mental hospital. I disagree. It's more like a mental hospital  inside of a prison that leases office space next to a sewage plant. But one shouldn't judge, a good many New Yorkers assume that Los Angeles has more rehab centers than Starbucks coffee shops and anyone who is unemployed can simply become an 'extra' on a movie set. After buying close to our weight in Jewish books, we head to a Borough Park bagel shop.

My brother ordered a falafel. But after the previous night, I didn't want to see anything fried ever again. I ordered a bagel as did the woman behind me, but she was attended to first. There are unwritten rules in certain New York food establishments: 1. There is no such thing as sequential service. The person who orders after you is just as likely to be served first, so too is the family of eight that walked in twenty minutes after you did.  2) There are no such things as lines. People call out what they want. If you try to make a line, people will cut.

Back to our story.

The Sandwich-Man asked the Woman: 'What kind of bagel?'

Woman: 'A white one.'

Sandwich-Man: 'Is this one white enough?'

Woman: 'Yeah, can you order me a cab?'

(I exchanged a look with my brother that says: 'Can you really order a cab in a bagel shop?' Well, yes, apparently.)

Sandwich-Man: 'What company?'
Woman: (muttered something)

Sandwich-Man snatched a hand-held phone and shoved it over the counter: 'Here.'

Later, my brother tells me that that was a very polite conversation. But back to our story.

Sandwich-Man to me: 'So what do you want on your bagel?'
Me: 'Do you have cream cheese?'
Sandwich-Man: 'Yeah, we got cream cheese.'
Me: 'Do you have lox?'
Sandwich-Man: 'Got that too. Anything else?'

I looked at the rather dead looking iceberg salad. "Do you check the lettuce for bugs?"

Sandwich-Man: 'Of course we check it for bugs.'

But the honest word of a Sandwich-Man is not enough in Borough Park, so the owner of the store rambled over.  "Four rabbis check it for bugs--an Ashkenazi, a Sephardi, a Hasidic rabbi and the Mashgiach."

The owner sports a smart salt-and-pepper beard, a dark velvet skullcap, and a buttoned white shirt with several smudges. The twinkle in his eye assures me that even he thinks four lettuce-checkers is a little absurd.

"I am sure they did," I say, "but who checks the rabbis?"

On Sunday, I attended a very special wedding of two very special people in Riverdale, NY. Now, as both bride and groom are vegetarians it was no surprise that the food was dairy. What was a surprise were the baskets laid out in the lobby, asking guests to donate to one (or more) of three causes: 1) An organization that feeds hungry children, 2) a wedding fund for poor brides and grooms, and 3) a social justice organization.

After the ceremony, a very modest meal was set-up breakfast buffet style. (The highlight for me were the French toast and pancakes.) The message was obvious. There are other worthy places to invest money. It is not necessary to have endless trays of sushi and sashimi, speared roast beef and of course, piles and piles of pigs-in-a-blanket.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Faith and its Fruit: Bechukotai...

There are people who will drop a quarter into an expired meter and walk away—content in their anonymity. 

There are people who sow their fields with more grain than they shall ever need—content to leave the remainder for the poor to glean.  

Then there are those who would not lend a quarter, lest it be needed at some future time. As well there are those who store grain till it rots, in case of personal misfortune.

This week, we shall read a passage from the book of Jeremiah (Ch. 17): “Cursed is the man that trusts in man…, whose heart departs from the Lord…For he shall not see when good comes…”

Then later: “…Blessed be the man that trusts in the Lord, And whose trust the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, that spreads its roots by the river, he shall not fear when heat comes…nor shall he worry in a year of drought.”

The road to fortune may not be paved with faith, but there can be no enjoyment of fortune without it.  We would not be able to depart with a dollar, unless we could trust that another and another will come to buy the bread and shelter that we need.

God made it so that all fruit will eventually rot, so if you can, leave some on the tree for others. Have faith there’ll be more.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Head-Covering Part III: What is "Dat Yehudit"?

I am taking a short break from our modern discussion regarding Skype and head-coverings, instead, I thought I would examine some of the older material that define the parameters of the prohibition. (Fear not, we veer only to return in the fullness of time.)

The obligation for a married woman to cover her hair when she leaves the house is based on a Mishnah in Ketuvoth (72a):

Mishnah. "These are to be divorced without receiving their kethubah: a wife who transgresses the law of Moses or [one who transgresses] the practice of Jewish women. And what is [regarded as a wife's transgression against] the law of Moses? Feeding her husband with untithed food, having intercourse with him during the period of her menstruation, not setting apart her dough offering, or making vows and not fulfilling them. And what [is deemed to be a wife's transgression against] the practice of Jewish women? Going out with her head uncovered, spinning in the street or conversing with every man." Translation: Rabbi Dov Linzer. For those who wish to read in Hebrew:
מתני'. ואלו יוצאות שלא בכתובה: העוברת על דת משה ויהודית. ואיזו היא דת משה? מאכילתו שאינו מעושר, ומשמשתו נדה, ולא קוצה לה חלה, ונודרת ואינה מקיימת. ואיזוהי דת יהודית? יוצאה וראשה פרוע

Now I wish to point out two things. First a very literal read of the Mishnah, seems to imply that the obligation to cover hair begins when a woman leaves her home. ''Going out...." states the Mishnah. But more on this later... Second, the Hebrew for 'Law of Moses' is Dat Moshe while the Hebrew for 'the practice of Jewish women' is 'Dat Yehudit.' Now, the latter raises all kind of questions regarding how Dat Yehudit ought to be defined--Do Jewish women decide for themselves? Do the social mores of a host country or culture play a role? Is it based on what men find to be provocative? Is it rabbinic? Is it biblical?

The discussion starts in the Talmud, continues with the Rishonim, and has not ceased till this day. But I thought  to point out something that is of far more academic interest, conceding that it probably has limited application in terms of the halachic process. Nevertheless, I offer two pieces of evidence that Dat Yehudit was not the original expression. The first is from an early Mishnah manuscript held in the Biblioteca Palatina. For those who can make out the Hebrew, it's in the bottom left-hand corner of the following Link. The Second is from a  manuscript of the Mishnah Ketubot, held in a Library in Budapest. The Mishnah (7:6) is found on the right column.

Well, what both these manuscripts state plainly is that the original expression is not Dat Yehudit (Practice of a Jewish Woman) but Dat Yehudim (Practice of Jews).  What difference does this make? Perhaps none whatsoever, especially since all the Talmudic manuscripts that I found use Dat Yehudit in their discussions. (Vatican EBR 113; Vatican EBR 130; Vatican EBR 487.11; Cf. Dikdukei Sofrim HaShalem: Ketuboth** for Genizot)

But to my mind at least, the parallel of Dat Moshe and Dat Yehudim--the Practice of Moses and the Practice of Jews, reaffirms a division between the Laws of the Jewish People and the Customs of the Jewish People. The latter naturally being far more fluid than the former. I admit, however, that even this might not always hold true, the force of custom is often stronger than that of law, and besides, we Jews are pretty stubborn.

To be continued next week...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Must A Woman Cover Her Hair on Skype? Part II

Continuing from yesterday's discussion (Please note the legal disclaimer):

If we assume that a technologically reproduced image has the same status as an actual person (vis-a-vis modesty), it is somewhat hard to imagine that a woman who normally covers her hair when hosting in her home should be exempt when video-conferencing.

The latter view is in keeping with the decision of R. Moshe Feinstein who rules that a woman must cover her hair when hosting others who are not part of her immediate family. (Igroth Moshe EH 1:58) His argument is based on the premise that the uncovered hair of a married woman should only be seen by her husband or immediate family. Thus it makes no difference whether the video-meeting is said to take place in the employer's office or in one's dining room or in some virtual space in-between. The woman is being "seen" could even say she is being seen "outside-the-house," therefore a covering is required.

To take a slight tangent, it's worth mentioning that there are other views when it comes to covering inside the house. There is the stringent view that a married woman ought to cover her hair at all times even in her own home among family. (Chatam Sofer OH #36 based on the Zohar, Naso 125b) On the other end of the spectrum, there are women who do not cover their heads whatsoever, neither in-home nor away. (See Aruch HaShulchan OH 75.6,7; Sefer Yehoshua #89)  There is a fascinating view that the requirement to cover one's head is based on physical location--outside the home, yes--within the home, no. (Discussed at length in B'nei Banim III.24) While I shall return to the latter in a later post, for now we shall retain Rav Moshe Feinstein's p'sak. 

This brings us to the heart of the matter: Ought a digital image of a person be given the same halachic significance as the physical presence of a person?

There is a fascinating responsum of HaRav Ovadiah Yosef that begins with the following question: "May a man recite Kriat Shema if he sees the reflection of an unattired (or somewhat unattired) woman in a mirror? What of a similar image in a photograph?" (Yabia Omer I. O.H. #7)

Rav Ovadiah Yosef begins by making a distinction between actual images (seen through an interfering medium) and reflected images. For example, let us say one wished to bless the new moon. If one were to look directly at the moon through a glass lantern or a window, this would constitute proper "seeing" despite the barrier of glass. In contrast, if one could only see the reflected moon shining upon the surface of a lake, it is rather debatable if this constitutes actual "seeing." It follows from here that photographs, reflections, and videos would fall into this "surface of the lake" category.

At first, Rav Ovadiah seems to prefer the opinion that viewing something seen in a mirror constitutes actual seeing--at least as far as women's hair and exposed limbs are concerned. However, he brings the Nachalat Binyamin (#26) who makes a fascinating counter-argument based on the Rama's p'sak regarding wigs. (OH 75.2) The Rema rules that a man may recite Kriat Shema in front of a woman wearing a wig because detached hair does not have the same (provocative) status as hair that is still rooted to the scalp. This is so even when the hair of the wig was cut from the very scalp it rests upon! Moreover, a comparison can be drawn from wig hair, which is detached from the scalp, and natural growing hair seen in a mirror, as the reflected image is also "detached" from the actual person. Thus the Nachalat Binyamin permits the reciting of Kriat Shema in front of a reflection of uncovered hair that (under normal circumstances) should be covered. Likewise, the same argument may be applied to photographs and reproduced images.

For whatever reason, Rav Ovadiah Yosef seems rather uncomfortable with this notion...Perhaps because he just doesn't like Sheitels... he goes onto to list the many poskim who frankly don't like wigs either. (Cf. his son's work, Yalkut Yosef "Otzer Dinim L'Ishah u'l'Bath" #775) [Also, I found a video clip of R. Ovadiah Yosef discouraging brides from marrying grooms who insist that their betrothed wear wigs.]

Nevertheless, R. Ovadiah concedes that even if one does not wish to call an image in a mirror or photograph actual "seeing," one would still have the problem that the image itself may be enticing and distracting to a man trying to recite Shema. Therefore, he rules stringently in any event. His decision is echoed in another responsum this time dealing with the question of whether a man can recite Kriat Shema in front of a television showing images of less than fully-appareled women. (Yechaveh Da'ath 4:7)

Once more and a bit more firmly, R. Ovadiah rules that images on television are considered reflections or shadows of the real. Likewise, his basis for prohibiting the recitation of Kriat Shema is grounded on the idea that the images are distracting to a male trying to pray and may well lead the fellow to think indecent thoughts.

The upshot of this is the following. A woman who web-conferences is not really in the presence of man, she is in the presence of a digitally reconstituted image. Similarly, the man who converses with her...does not see actual hair, but merely the digital representation of that hair on a computer screen. To wax poetic, no matter how beautiful the moon's reflection on a dark placid lake, it should not be mistaken with actually seeing the moon.

By this argument alone, it would be difficult to articulate a basis for obligating a woman to cover her hair while Skyping in her own home. The concern that her uncovered hair may produce an immodest image is mitigated by the Nachalat Binyamin's argument (above) as well as by the fact that in our day, men are accustomed to  seeing married (and unmarried woman) with their heads uncovered. (Aruch HaShulchan OH 75.6,7; Sefer Yehoshua #89) The extent of the latter is such that men, in many communities and synagogues, may even be permitted to pray in the presence of exposed hair of married women. (Aruch HaShulchan ibid; Cf. Biur Halacha 75.2 'M'chutz L'tzmatan')

To be continued...

Monday, May 16, 2011

Must A Woman Cover Her Hair on Skype? Part I

(Legal Disclaimer: Despite the fact that this question was asked of me recently and I did give an answer, what  follows is the beginning of a wider analysis of the sources that deal with head covering. It is meant to provoke discussion, not to render any sort of decision.)

Question: "I have a Skype interview tomorrow. Since I am technically in my house, do I need to cover my hair? (I cover if men are expected in the home, but not in front of other women, or children...)"

Response: There is a certain ambiguity inherent to video-conferencing. As in your situation, your "person" is in the West, but your image and voice may be seen a thousand miles to the East. The same may be said of your potential employer, his or her "person" is the East, but the individual's voice and image carry to a computer screen in the West.

So where is the interview said to occur?  Shall we say that you are sitting in your potential employer's office? Or shall we say that your potential employer is sitting in your dining-room or den?

Perhaps we might say that it is an in-between zone. A physical parallel of this 'virtuality' might be one's front porch or gated are not exactly in your home, but you are not exactly in the street either. (In due time, I shall discuss the "Courtyard" scenario in Ketuvot 72a/b as well as Rav Henkin's discussion of the latter in B'nei Banim III.24)

Alternatively, one may object to the whole premise of the question: Why should photographs and videos be given any legitimacy. At the end of the day, 'they show a body without a soul...' Must a woman cover her hair every time her daughter decides to snap a photo of her (or shoot a video of her) with an iPhone or similar device? The technological repercussions of stringency might (and may in fact already) straight-jacket women into keeping their heads' covered even in their own homes among family, lest an unruly teenager snap a photo and post it on Facebook...

To be continued...

Trader Joe's Organic Grape Juice--Is it Really Kosher?

A dear reader complains that 64oz of "Royal Purple" Kedem Grape routinely tops $8!! Another informs me that $10 is not uncommon in his small town. Is there an alternative for Jews in the far-less trodden, but no less loved, corners of our beloved country?

Well, leave it to R. Yitzchak Abadi to be two steps ahead of the game. According to his 2011 Pesach list, Trader Joe's Grape Juice is not only Kosher for Sephardim on Pesach, but get this, it's kosher for Ashkenazim too...year-round. (That last part was sarcasm, in case you didn't catch it.) I have pasted part of his list below: ('P' means 'Parve'; 'A' means 'Kosher for All')

Trader Joe's
Fruit Water (Watermelon, Raspberry Lime)
Trader Joe's
Grape Juice
Trader Joe's
Grapefruit Groove


To be absolutely certain I am not hallucinating, I double-check Trader Joe's online list of Kosher Products. Sure enough, Organic Concord Grape Juice is there...on the list!!!

I am too nervous words.... Tripping out of the house, I forget my reusable shopping bags. Thankfully, I am wearing a hat so as to avoid any potential Chillul Hashem at the check-out counter when I have to ask for paper bags. (This is a West L.A. Trader Joe's, mind you.) But I remind myself that I am a rabbi (and I should not be fiddling with legal loopholes), so I turn around and snatch our collection of bags made from an assortment of fascinating materials, such as recycled newspaper, soda bottles, hemp, and (don't tell anyone) cotton.

The Search begins well. I snap a photo of an OU on Joe's Kids White Grape Juice:

(And is that a cameo of Starbuck's Queen Esther???)

Continuing on, I find Joe's Kids Apple-Grape Juice, also with an OU!:

(Boy, am I having a Sunny Day!!!)

And then I spot it! The holy grape of my crusade...that small purple sunset, a 32oz bottle of Organic Trader Joe's Concord Grape Juice for the very reasonable price of $2.99:  

(Isn't she beautiful?)

But then I look again: 

(There is something missing)

I start to panic:

And then I really start to panic:

There is no OU, or CRC, or Half Moon K or Half K Moon... I have the helpful traders of Trader Joe's search the boxes in the back...maybe there is some 'Occipital K' that nobody has ever heard of somewhere on the box, but there isn't. We take turns staring at the bottle again and then at the list...  

And then I slowly put the Organic Concord Grape Juice back on the shelf, and fill my recycled shopping bags with other organic and non-organic things and return home--in the chilly night...the air still and quiet with subdued contemplation. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Cost of Kosher: Rabbi Hausman becomes a Reporter…

(Legal Disclaimer: “The following blog contains conversations that have been highly dramatized due in large measure to the author’s handwriting being illegible and that no one is paying said author to be objective or to check facts.”)

In my ongoing quest for cut-rate Kosher Kedem, I decided to do something that arouses about as much anxiety as parking enforcement in NYC. But there are necessary evils in life—such as alarm clocks and living adjacent elevated trains—that must be endured so that one doesn't go through life sleeping.
So for you dear reader, and for Kashrut consumerism, and for the Jewish people, and for God, and for my wife (note the order), I overcame my inhibitions and decided to pick up the phone and talk to a stranger … which lead to my having to speak with another stranger…and then one more after that…till she hung up the phone, but not before I got what I wanted:
Wholesale prices.

The day began with a call to Kedem Headquarters :
“Good morning, Um, can you tell me something about wholesale sales to individuals?”
Jewish Receptionist: “You’re from Los Angeles right?”  (Note: Only a Jewish receptionist would answer a question with a question.)
Me:  “Um, Yes. Where are you?”
Receptionist: “New Jersey.”
Me: “I’m sorry.”
Receptionist: laughter... “Well, I am from LA originally.”
Me: “Is  that so?”
The next five minutes can be summarized as follows:  Jewish geography.  

Eventually, I got the numbers for Kedem’s LA distributor (Shalom and Sons) and a Kedem Sales Manager in the Valley. Apparently, all the kosher shops in LA get their Kedem products from the same distributor. I tried the Sales Manager first, an amiable chap. “…Well, Ralph’s basically gives the grape juice away around Pesach. Same with matzah. They order from a big distributor: D.P.I. I bought a case of matzah for $2.99, the real cost is over five dollars! It’s how they get you to come in. They give away Champagne at Christmas and New Year’s…’

The receptionist at Shalom and Sons was far less friendly.
“No, we don’t sell to individuals.”
“ What about synagogues?”
“Synagogues yes—and anyone with a resale license.”
"Can you tell me the price for a box of Kedem grape Juice? 64oz?"
“How many in a box?”
“Well, thank you so—“  Click.

The way the math works, a single 64oz bottle of Kedem grape juice is $4.87, which means that kosher shops have 25-30 percent mark-up. 

In summary, stores like Ralph's and Stop & Shop who sell Kedem for $2.99, are doing so below cost. In contrast, Kosher shops, who purchase Kedem from a single distributor and sell Kedem for profit, must price their grape juice around $5.99 to make a reasonable profit.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Parashat Behar: "You Shall Dwell Securely"

“If you perform My statutes, and guard my ordinances, and do them—then you shall dwell in the land securely.” (Leviticus 25.18) On the surface this makes no sense. We can seek spiritual fulfillment from dawn to dusk, we can preach the Word of God on the corner of every street, but how should this bring about our physical security? Consider the Tibetans—what good are mantras of enlightenment and avowals of non-violence in the face of China’s army?

Rabbi Chizkuni recommends a different reading:  “’You shall dwell therein securely’—[this means] the Land shall give you her strength so that you be not consumed by your enemies.”

In other words, spiritual striving on its own will not grant us physical security—a book of Talmud is not the same as a bayonet. But religiosity will do something of far greater and more lasting significance—it will imbue the nation with confidence. Through the sanctification of ourselves and our land, we draw sustenance.

An analogy comes to mind.  Over the last few years, we saw a lot of banks fail. These banks did not fail because their vaults were insecure. The locksmiths and security guards did their jobs. They failed because there was nothing inside the vault.  CEOs were selfish and greedy. They underwrote bad loans for the promised return of a few extra interest points.  In the end, the very meaning of a ‘bank’—as a repository of trust and security—dissolved to dust.  

This week began with a celebration of Israel’s Independence; it ended though with protests of her Independence.  In Alexandria, Egypt protesters chanted, "With our souls, with our blood, we redeem you Palestine." Make no mistake, they meant and mean all of Palestine.

True. Israel has made its share of mistakes. Some politicians and pundits will try to defend the State while others prefer to admit error and try for a just resolution. But editorials and interviews make no impression upon those who hate us. As Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits once put it, “Whoever denies us the right to human shortcomings is at the bottom of his heart denying us the right to live.”[i]

So let it be said again, the vault is vitally important, but it is from the treasure within—the Sabbaths of the Land—that we draw our sustenance.

Shabbat Shalom

[i] Rabbi Berkovits’ Sermon, “The Wandering Amalek” was delivered in February, 1941. Published in his book, Between Yesterday and Tommorow

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Who is a Rabbi? Who is a Jew? Round III

For “Who is Rabbi? Who is Jew? Round III” I thought I would translate and present a short responsum of Rav Moshe Feinstein.  (For those who wish to read the previously posted Reform and Conservative responsa on conversion, see Round I and Round II .)

A bit of background. In 1956, Rav Moshe became famous for his Teshuva rejecting the halachic validity of Reform weddings. The decision was motivated by a desire to permit children of 2nd marriages born within the Reform movement to marry other Jews (Orthodox or otherwise). The Reform movement had dispensed with the obligation of giving a traditional get at the time of divorce—this created the possibility of their being mamzerimwho would be prohibited from marrying nearly every sort of Jew. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes quite a bit about this in his book, “One People?”, concluding that the ends justified the means. (See pages 188-194)

Within Orthodox circles, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin objected to this decision on halachic grounds. Within Reform circles, the decision was look upon (as it was) as the de-legitimization of their movement. To their credit, the Reform movement for a long time now has insisted that women married under Orthodox auspices receive a proper Orthodox get if they wish to remarry using a Reform rabbi . This decision was upheld in a heart-rending case of an agunah: See this 1946 Responsa  as well as in this more recent case involving the question of supporting a citywide religious ban against a man who refused to give his wife a get: Responsa.

In any event, the Teshuva I would like to look at continues our previous theme of boundary crossing. This time the issue surrounds the status of a converted Reform family who seem poised to embrace the Orthodox lifestyle. The Responsa is dated “The Eve of the 9th of Av, 5720” (August 1st, 1960). (Found in Igroth Moshe: Yoreh Deah III.105) As Rav Moshe disqualified Reform weddings, so too he disqualified Reform conversions. But observe well dear reader, for here there is an interesting twist.  

The Query: “A woman had a Reform conversion and afterward gave birth to a son. As he was assumed to be a ‘son of Israel’, they circumcised him accordingly (like any other Jewish male.) Now, they have drawn close to Hashem and his Torah. The mother has agreed to immerse her son in a mikvah, but she is unwilling to allow her son to undergo hataphat dam brit—as the boy is weak. Moreover, this boy stands to become a Bar Mitzvah in the coming days…”   [What should we do?]

Response: “In an ideal halachic situation (L’chatchila), one ought to require hataphat dam brit. Nevertheless, in a time of great need like this, one can support the forgoing of the requirement since he was originally circumcised for the sake of Judaism. The case resembles one found in the Talmud Yavamot 45b…”
As Rav Moshe Feinstein simply gives citations, I shall try to explain it in full. The Talmud presents the following case: ‘The servant of Rabbi Chiya bar Ami had a certain idolatress immerse in a mikvah so that he could marry her.’  As this immersion was done for the sake of Niddah, the question arose: Would this immersion count for conversion? The Talmud concludes that it works and both the woman and the daughter (conceived from the union) are to be considered Jewish.  It would seem then that intent to observe the ritual of immersion for Niddah speaks loud enough for the woman’s desire to become Jewish. (Rashi)
(Tangentially, the Gemora does not mention if this woman had previously accepted the mitzvoth before Beit Din. Tosafoth and Tosafoth Chad Mikamei assume as much.)

But here is the critical point. In an explanation brought down by Tosafoth, the issue of concern is not so much that the woman immersed for the sake of Niddah and not conversion—as explained above, her intent to become Jewish was clearly manifest by her actions—rather the issue is that the immersion was done without the knowledge or presence of a Beit Din. The answer offered is that since her immersion was publicly known—which is seemingly why the Beit Din must be present for immersion in the first place—the immersion counts for conversion. (Tosafoth: “Mi  Lo Tavlah L’Niduthah”)

Now back to Rav Moshe: “…if there were three kosher witnesses [=Beit Din] for the original circumcision, it would certainly be good. But if not, one can rely on the fact that the circumcision was publicly known. This accords with the view brought down in Tosafat [above] Mi  Lo Tavlah L’Niduthah…”

The end of the Teshuva is utterly prescient of the woe that has fallen upon the converts of today. Even though Rav Moshe must have been confident of his decision, he predicts that the absence of hataphat dam brit may lead another rabbi to claim that the boy’s Jewish status is in error.  Rav Moshe writes therefore that the mother ought to be made aware of this possibility down the road. Not unlike the tact later evinced by Rabbi Novak, Rav Moshe suggests that this be done quietly and one ought to be careful to use the term “incomplete” instead of “illegitimate” when describing the conversion.

For those who wish, the Teshuva is pasted in Hebrew below: 

שו"ת אגרות משה יורה דעה חלק ג סימן קה
 בדבר תינוק נכרי שנימול בחזקת שהוא יהודי אם צריך הטפת דם ברית ערב ת"ב תש"כ לכבוד הרב נחמן מאיר בערנהארד שליט"א

בדבר אשה שנתגיירה בגירות ריפורמית, ואח"כ הולידה בן, והוחזק כבן ישראל ומלו אותו כאילו הוא בן ישראל ועכשיו נעשו קרובים לשם ולתורתו, והאם מסכימה שיטבול בנה, אבל לא רוצה להניח שיטיפו דם ברית מבנה, מאחר שהוא ילד חלש, והילד עומד להיות בר מצוה בעוד כמה ימים, הנה אף שלכתחלה צריך הטפת דם ברית, מ"מ בשעת הדחק גדול כזה, יש לסמוך שלא להצריך הטפת דם ברית, באשר שמלו אותו לשם יהדות כהא דמי לא טבלה לנידותה (יבמות מ"ה ע"ב) ואם היו ג' כשרים בשעת המילה, ודאי טוב, ואם לא, הא יש לסמוך על פרסום שהולכין למול, כסברת הי"מ בתוס' ד"ה מי לא טבלה בפרט שעצם הטפת דם ברית הוא ספק

ומה שכת"ר אינו רוצה לגלות להם מה באמת הספק לא טוב כי אח"ז רב יוכל לטעון שהיה בטעות לכן צריך לומר להם שלא היתה גרות גמורה ויכול לומר להם בחשאי שלא בפרסום 

גם את האם מכיון שמחזיקים אותה לגיורת גמורה יש לדבר אליה שתטבול כדין 
ידידו, משה פיינשטיין 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Israel's Day of Independence

There is great deal of ceremony and pomp that marks the anniversary of Israel's Declaration of Independence. There is also a good deal of fun in the form of smoky barbecues and parades that mark the occasion. But to fully appreciate what it is to have an independent Jewish State, one must realize what it is to exist without a secure Jewish homeland.

To recall an adage of C.S. Lewis, "A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line." One needs a point of reference. Thusly, I have uploaded a sermon by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits found in an early book of his, Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (Oxford). The sermon was delivered during the holiday of the year 1941. It's title? Tomorrow Will Come    

I urge you to read it. One can argue if the State of Israel is the dawning of the long awaited tomorrow, but one cannot deny that today is much better than yesterday.

To read R. Berkovitz sermon, click here: Tomorrow Will Come

Monday, May 9, 2011

Who is a Rabbi? Who is a Jew? Round II

In yesterday's blog, I posted a Reform Teshuva that sought to determine the Jewish status of an individual who underwent a 'Secular Humanist Jewish' conversion before endeavoring to join a Reform congregation. Along these lines, I thought it would be interesting to present a comparable excerpt from a Conservative Teshuva that is too occupied with issues of Jewish identity.
The fascinating responsum, "The Status of Non-Halachic Conversions" was authored by Rabbi David Novak and adopted by majority vote of the Law Committee in 1982. I should mention that there were several "postscripts" to this Responsum, containing concurrence and dissent.  Thus it would be unwise to base a general statement solely on this Teshuva such as: "Conservative policy on Reform conversion is X..."

Here is the Query:  "She’elah: The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly has been asked on several occasions about the status of persons converted to Judaism in a non-halakhic manner, that is, men who did not undergo milah and/or tevilah and women who did not undergo tevilah. This question has assumed rather dramatic proportions in recent times due to the attempt in the State of Israel to amend the “Law of Return” (Hok Heshevut) so that only those who have undergone halakhic conversions (giyyur kehalachah) are entitled to automatic Israeli citizenship. Also, in America the whole issue of pluralistic Jewish community, which most Conservative Jews recognize as both a fact and a desideratum, raises the question of the status of numerous persons who consider themselves bona fide members of the Jewish community and are considered as such by others, yet who did not undergo the prescribed procedure for conversion. The question therefore calls for renewed attention."

Fascinating as it is, we shall skip to the resounding end:

"Conclusion: I find no cogent basis in halakhah for accepting even ex post facto, converts who did not undergo specific tevilah for the sake of conversion, unless it can be shown that they are strictly observant Jews, particularly scrupulous in the use of a mikvah. The fact that they may have been taken to be Jews by themselves or by others does not change the need for tevilah for the sake of conversion. The fact that most of these conversions have been conducted under Reform auspices makes the matter especially difficult because of the cordial relationships which exist between Conservative and Reform rabbis and lay people. Nevertheless, this halakhic requirement is not meant as a public rebuff to the Reform movement. If a Reform rabbi conducts giyyur kehalakhah, I accept his converts as bona fide Jews. I might also add that I do not accept converts of non-Reform rabbis if the conversion was not conducted according to objective halakhic criteria. These objective halakhic criteria, which alone protect the purity of Jewish identity, should not be compromised in the interests of an ultimately meaningless Jewish unity. However, rabbinical experience has taught me that a Conservative rabbi can exercise compassionate tact in urging proper tevilah in these cases.  I do not tell such converts that their conversions invalid, but rather, that they were incomplete, for even the most liberal conversion involves study, thus minimally fulfilling hoda’at mitvot. I tell them that they inadvertently overlooked an important specific. At the tevilah I ask them to reconfirm their kabbalat ol malchut shamayim and converts have thanked me for helping them to legally assure their unambiguous Jewish identity. […]"

We shall see tomorrow if an Orthodox Teshuva is as tactful. I'll save you a seat for Round III...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Who is a Rabbi? Who is a Jew? Round I

In the last 5-6 years, there has been a great deal of internal debate within Orthodox circles over just which Orthodox rabbis should and should not be able to perform conversions.  Orthodoxy’s near ubiquitous dismissal of non-Orthodox’s converts has been going on for half a century or more, so that’s nothing new, whatever one’s feelings on the matter.  Yet there is a grim irony in the idea of Orthodox rabbis who have dismissed non-Orthodox conversions as illegitimate now finding their own conversions called into question. Call it “measure for measure,” or, “what goes around comes around,” or, to riff a fancy phrase, “the karma of exclusion has run over the dogma of exclusiveness.” Many of us Orthodox have come to know the feeling of being ‘rendered out-of-bounds.’
Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to rehash these thoughts, but they were prompted by an unusual source, a Reform Responsum, titled “Who Is a Rabbi? (CCAR 5759.3).   Though the actors were different, the plot was very much the same. Here is the query:

“She'elah A new congregation has been formed in my city, founded by a woman who has attended the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ), the rabbinical school of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. She serves as the congregation's rabbi, even though she has yet to be ordained by that school. She has been licensed by the state to perform weddings, and also does conversions. Should we accept these conversions as valid, even though they were supervised by someone other than an ordained rabbi? In general, what is our position with respect to individuals who have received private ordination or who claim to possess ordination from seminaries, schools or yeshivot with which we are unfamiliar? Do we recognize them as rabbis? Do we accept them as colleagues in our communities?”

I shall not paste the entire Teshuva below. But I will tell you the final score: 1-1. The convert was accepted, even  though the greater portion of cited legal sources and various arguments seemed to lead the reader the other way! The "rabbi" though, was not so lucky. Here is the final paragraph:

“To summarize: not everyone who may be called "rabbi" is necessarily deserving of that distinction. Your community is under no obligation to recognize the rabbinical credentials of those individuals who have received "ordination" privately or from lowly-regarded institutions. The rabbis in your city are similarly under no obligation to accept these persons as colleagues and as members of your local rabbinical association. You should, of course, act towards them with grace, cordiality and tact, with all due concern for communal unity, in the spirit of a tradition that calls upon us to follow "the paths of peace." Yet the ultimate message is clear: if we as rabbis truly care about the quality and the reputation of our calling, it is our duty to advocate that membership in the rabbinate be restricted to those who clearly meet the proper educational standards.

Justified, yes. Sensible, certainly. But I feel the sting.

(To read the Teshuva in its entirety, click here: Who Is a Rabbi?)

The Cost of Kosher Continued

I had the opportunity to continue my review of LA kosher shops, thus two new establishments have been added to the mix: Trader Joe's (Culver City) and the Pico Glatt Mart. They are listed below with the previous vendors. But first, I shall announce a couple of discoveries.

1) Pico Glatt Mart has a website. It doesn't give prices or anything, but maybe with some encouragement they might advertise specials. 21st century marketing didn't evolve in a day.
2) Nevertheless, in the chicken department, Pico Glatt Mart is about as competitive as last week's winner Kosher Club (see below). Unfortunately, I must report that they too are unapologetic members of the "Kedem Cartel"--with the usual $5.99 for a large bottle!

(Those who wish to understand why this irks me so, last year I routinely bought large bottles of Kedem grape juice for $2.99 at the Stop & Shop in Yonkers, NY!)

3) Trader Joe's... If you buy a whole organic chicken it comes out to be $3.99lb--which is only a dollar or so more than the non-organic variety we find at most kosher butchers. For those who do not know, Trader Joe's is trying hard to solicit kosher customers. They have a list of kosher foods on their website with the contact information for the many varied and multinational kosher supervisory organizations that tend to be unfamiliar to most kosher consumers. Here is what they wrote:

"We sail the culinary seas in search of new and exciting products. How does this affect our kosher shoppers? Because our products span the globe, you may spot kosher symbols that you do not recognize. Our list was compiled to help you easily identify the wide range of kosher products we carry in our stores. We have included an appendix of kosher symbols found on Trader Joe's Products so you can become more familiar with the governing agencies that may not be from your neighborhood.
Please note that this list is not all-inclusive, but it's a pretty good overview. Please be sure to check your produce, bakery and dairy sections for even more kosher products (these sections tend to vary by region in order to ensure the utmost freshness!). We try to keep this list as up to date and as accurate as possible, but we do introduce and discontinue products all the time, so keep your eyes open."

And now back to the list. (Remember, prices may vary..)

Pico Glatt Mart (9427 W. Pico Blvd) - 5/6/11
Kehilla Chicken $2.39lb-$2.99lb
Kehilla Turkey Wings $1.59lb
Kedem Grape Juice (large) $5.99 

Trader Joe's (Culver City) 5/3/11
Empire (Whole) Organic Chicken $3.99lb
Empire (Whole) Non-Organic Chicken  $3.99lb
Empire (Pieces) Chicken $3.99-$6.49lb
Empire (Pieces) Turkey $3.99lb

Kosher Club (4817 West Pico Boulevard)
Empire Chicken        $2.69-2.99 lb
King David Chicken  $2.69-2.99 lb
Turkey Drumstick      $1.99 lb
Kedem Grape Juice   $5.99 (large bottle)

Glatt Mart (8708 West Pico Boulevard)
Agristarmeat Chicken $2.79-3.59
Chai Poultry Chicken  $3.69 
Fabrengen Grape Juice  $5.49 

Livonia Glatt Market (Pico & Livonia)
Agristarmeat Chicken   $2.79-$3.29 lb.
Turkey Drumstick $2.19 lb.
Fabrengen Grape Juice $5.99

Ralph's (9616 West Pico Boulevard)
Empire Chicken $3.99-4.19 (Club Card)
Kedem Grape Juice $3.89 (Club Card)