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Yeshivish vs. Modern Orthodox Day Schools Round 1

I was just privy to a spirited debate on Twitter between two colleagues of mine over this article:

The debate centered around who’s approach in Jewish education was really winning the hearts and minds of our children: the Yeshivish (otherwise known as Lithuanian Haredi or ultra-Orthodox [sic]) or the Modern Orthodox approach.  As true scholars actually looking for truth, they both acknowledged the relative merits of each other’s approach.  Still, I think it a worthy endeavor to weed out some of the emotional talk and actually weigh up the two sides.

Yeshivish: The Yeshivish philosophy is that Torah, as the word of G-d, must be studied intently by everyone to the exclusion of other considerations.  This means that students study Torah, particularly Talmud, for large parts of the day with secular studies taking a back seat.  It’s intense and serious, and there’s very little time for recreation of any type.


  • Students generally demonstrate a high level of observance and many desire to increase their observance levels
  • Overall retention rates are high
  • Torah scholarship is high and they are producing most of the major Torah scholars now
  • Students marry, marry early, and marry within the tribe


  • High level of stricture means some kids have no place and slip through the cracks
  • Some students who rebel rebel hard and become anti, and have even caused great embarrassment to the community through tell-all books and TV appearances
  • Students less equipped to handle some of the challenges presented by the Western world including academia, atheism, and certain temptations that they only learned were forbidden but not how to deal with them
  • Students less prepared to make a living

Modern Orthodox:  Modern Orthodox says that a Jewish student must be knowledgeable about Judaism and the secular world as well.  The value of Torah and secular studies is equated.  Many schools have incorporated a campy aspect to their Torah curriculum to get the kids to love Judaism by having fun with it.


  • Students highly successful in secular studies, often entering top-notch schools and winning awards
  • Students enter lucrative careers and are often very financially successful
  • Students generally have a positive attitude toward Judaism and a positive self image
  • Students “fit in” to the Western world better and are less intimidated by it


  • Retention and observance levels often lower than Yeshivish counterparts
  • Halacha (Jewish law) viewed as the rules for a Jew version of Dungeons & Dragons rather than a function of the Divine Imperative, where either they or their rabbis are the Dungeon Masters
  • Students often have Western attitudes toward sexuality and dating, leading to more secular patterns of dating, marriage, and divorce
  • Learning levels tend to be much lower and students are often neither inspired to continue lifelong Torah learning or even can without the assistance of English learning aids such as Artscroll

I guarantee the two gentlemen I am addressing this post to will take issue with at least some of the points I have made.  I wrote this to further discussion, not end it.

Round 2, fight!

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Sam HarriS’ Silly Semitic MiStakeS

I’m always interested in hearing a different perspective on controversial topics, even though I know going in I’m highly unlikely to agree with the viewpoint. Sam Harris’ recent defense of his own unwillingness not to bash Israel over the current conflagration in the Middle East did not disappoint.  I was really wondering how he was going to turn the crisis into a referendum on religion in general but I was taken aback how much he was willing to slam Israel for existing even as he was “defending” it.  I was unaware of his position that Israel’s existence was illegitimate simply because of the fact that it was founded as a “Jewish and democratic state” and since Judaism is a religion, a country could not be founded based on it.  I found his defense of his position not to criticize Israel very confused and self contradictory, and most of all completely uninformed.

I do not want this piece to become another piece of hasbara, because the issues with his positions go far beyond not knowing the historical background of the conflict.  His fallacies fall into three major areas: ignorance of Judaism, Middle East history, and a confused moral system.  In order not to distract from the major issues, I will simply add some links about Judaism’s approach to Zionism and Middle East history.  See at the end of the article.   I would hope that after he informed himself about these issues he might be in a better position to make public statements on the issue.

I want to hone in on the morality issue, as this is where Mr. Harris makes the crux of his argument.  I can see where many people might want to dismiss Jewish and Arab historical claims to the land as a “he said, she said” kind of thing.  Let’s remove all consideration of these factors and hone in on Mr. Harris’ wildly spinning moral compass.  If he’s willing to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, on whatever grounds he is, shouldn’t Israel be able to defend itself?  Should Israel’s right to defend itself be strictly limited to the bare minimal and have to maximize risk to its own military and citizens in order to minimize casualty on the other side?  Does the fact that Israel is fighting an existential war change the rules of the level of conduct by which it must engage in war?

Actually, there is only one real question: where is he getting his ideas about what is or is not okay in warfare?  If he wants to take a Kantian approach, then the best place to look would probably be the Geneva Conventions, a generally accepted warfare practices guide. There it spells out what war crimes actually are: attacking civilian populations, using human shields, perfidy etc… By Sam Harris’ own admission Israel is not engaging in those behaviors, and is doing everything to minimize civilian casualties.  The concept of collateral damage is acknowledged and a nation that accidentally kills civilians while engaged in acceptable military behavior is not guilty of war crimes.  So how could he possibly say that he is certain Israel is engaging in war crimes?  If he is using his own conscience as the source of what constitutes a war crime, he has already proved that is an invalid place to start given his willingness to pass judgement and make assumptions without being informed of the facts on the ground.  If he says he’s sure something happened, but has no proof, then we have no reason to accept his certainty as anything but conjecture.

But it gets worse for him.   Why shouldn’t two nations at war be able to engage in total annihilation policies?  This is the way most nations engaged in warfare for much of human history, and the Middle East still operates on this principle.  Multigenerational blood feuds are not uncommon in the Middle East.  The Sunni-Shiite struggle is almost 1,400 years and counting.  If anywhere, it might be said that the Torah that he so much demonizes could  be considered the source for treating civilians and soldiers differently.  In the Humash (Pentateuch), G-d forbids the Jews from waging war with Edom, Moav, and Ammon despite the fact that they are blocking their way into the land of Israel.  Even when Israel is waging a revenge war against Midian they are ordered to spare some of the women as they could not be considered enemy combatants (Nm. 31), keeping in mind of course that the women who were killed were involved in a very unusual type of non-conventional warfare (Nm. 25:1-8).  The Jews spared some of the enemy Canaanites and gave them sanctuary after making promises not to destroy them despite the fact that the sanctuary was granted under false pretenses (Jo. 9).  The Torah, while technically permitting a forced relationship during combat, implicitly discourages it (Dt. 21:10-23), and Israeli soldiers have taken the Torah’s words to heart on this issue.  In fact, without the Torah’s injunctions to limit the scope of warfare, where would he get the idea that there’s such a thing as war crimes?  I think most people agree war sucks, but if you accept the fact that sovereign nations can engage in warfare to protect the interests of their populations, why must they have any regard for the lives of their enemies?

The problem becomes more acute when you take into account Mr. Harris’ position that morality is a kind of scientific Epicureanism with Utilitarian overtones.  He assumes that increasing happiness (as measured scientifically) for the most number of people defines what is moral and can be addressed largely in terms of meeting people’s physical wants and needs, although I would think he will concede to Maslow that higher order types of pleasures of self-actualization are actually the real goal.  There’s two problems with this.  First, it is very easy to use such a moral system to justify genocide of a small population if it will bring happiness to the general population.  Second, happiness is not held by all cultures to be the end determinant of what’s moral.  He’s clearly not familiar with the Jewish moral principle that the determination of what’s moral comes from obeying the will G-d and not from a pleasure principle as the final end.  In fact, one of the terms used in the Rabbinic literature for a heretic is an Apikorus, derived from its attitude toward the philosophy of Epicurus.   Edward Said, the famous Palestinian thinker, devoted an entire work called Orientalism to discussing the issue of Western thinkers misunderstanding or disregarding the cultural factors in moral, ethical, and political decision making.  As framed specifically in the context of this conflict, R’ Meir Kahane said that Israelis failed to understand the reason that their peace overtures and promises of material prosperity fell on deaf ears because the Palestinians would prefer to have THEIR outhouses to Israeli toilets.  Some even believe there’s a moral imperative to suffer or even die to achieve a lofty etherial goal that may or may not bring them pleasure in the conventional Western sense.

Reflecting on Mr. Harris’ half-hearted defense of Israeli conduct has made me realize one of the reasons hard scientists mock the social sciences and humanities.  The social sciences and humanities are not really scientific and suggest there is something to the human condition besides a mass of sophisticated organic chemicals interacting with one another.  Sam Harris runs into a major brick wall when making declarations about morality: without G-d, where does morality come from?  It’s an issue that philosophers have tried to address but have failed since every theory of morality without G-d ultimately breaks down.   This IMHO explains why he can’t actually take a definitive position for one side or the other and lacks moral clarity at a fundamental level.


Jews are Indigenuous





Torahtruejews.com *

* While the Neturai Karta distorts what our great rabbis have said to take an extreme position that has earned them the rare honor of banned from the Jewish community, they nonetheless have thoroughly documented not only Orthodox objections to Zionism but also some of the more shameful moments of early Zionist history. However, one should do their due diligence in fact checking before accepting their reports out of hand.

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Reflections on a Smashed Guitar

It probably wasn’t the most rabbinic way to spend my anniversary, but it was definitely a fun way and not something I had done in years.  I went to see KISS and Def Leopard with my wife, my first time seeing both bands.  If you’ve been following my misadventures here and on Twitter, you will certainly understand how I chose KISS over seeing Nine Inch Nails again (not that the wife would have gone in for that) or Soundgarden.  Not that I have been to many shows since entering yeshiva, for a variety of reasons.  I will have to give KISS serious props for a memorable performance.  The theatrics were up there with Manson and GWAR.


There’s a ritual that ends many a rock concert that I hadn’t really given that much to until my wife expressed a bit of horror when she realized what was about to happen.  Smashing the Strat (though an acoustic might work better) the lead guitarist was using after the show is a time-honored if not nonsensical rock tradition.  It’s also incredibly wasteful.  Oddly enough however, it reminded me of an incident in the Talmud (Berachot pg. 30) where both Mar bar Ravina and Rav Ashi both used the smashing of expensive glassware to sober the excessive levity at their sons’ weddings.   While the point was lost on most of the audience, it was not on my wife and her face showed as such.

Thinking about this got me to reflect on a few things that happened that evening that were mentioned by Paul Stanley during the course of the concert:

  1. A truck carrying a bunch of the lighting for the show flipped over.  The driver survived but the equipment did not.  It’s a sobering point to think the people providing entertainment, or anyone just doing their job for that matter, might be risking their life to do so.
  2. Paul mentioned all of the chaos in the world and how we all deserved one night to just get away from it because it will all be there tomorrow waiting for us.   Anyone following the news certainly knows this is true.  And yet how many of us spend more time in the escape than in the real world.   I spend quite a bit of time plugged in but with TV, internet, game consoles, people are spending more time escaping life than confronting it.  Everyone has the ability to positively contribute to fixing the world’s problems, but how many of us actually do?
  3. He also asked the audience if they pray and stated publicly that he did.  I was told by my diehard KISS fan compatriot that Paul has never said anything like this on stage.  Perhaps he was getting the audience to realize something.  They can do something to change the world; they can pray.  The end of the book of Leviticus describes a whole bunch of curses that will befall the Jews for not keeping the Torah, but if you look closely they are not curses at all.  G-d tells the Jews that he will treat them with keri, indifference.  G-d is telling us that the world is a naturally brutal hard place.  However, G-d can and will change nature in a second, if only we pursue a relationship with Him.  The Mishnah of Avot (2:4) tells us that if we make our will His, He will make His will ours.  It’s all about relationship, and Paul Stanley in the Torah spirit encouraged his fans to partake in that relationship through prayer.

On the idea that smashing the guitar is wasteful, smashing things is not always wasteful.  We smash a glass at Jewish weddings to diminish our joy a bit and to remind us of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and in being in exile.  So what might be the value added of destroying a guitar, a Biblical prohibition if there is no purpose (Dt. 20:19-20)?  Not that I’m saying it would qualify, but if I did want to give the rock world a pass on this issue I would it is for the entertainment value.  The Talmud in Taanit 22a says that there were two jesters who were worthy to enter Heaven because they brought joy to the depressed.  In a world where Tisha B’Av* has just ended, it doesn’t look like things will be much better next year.  While we do need to focus on making the world a better place, maybe a distraction isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Even if that distraction has fake blood coming from its mouth and pyrotechnics? Hmm. Maybe.

*Tisha B’Av is the Jewish day of communal mourning.  The destruction of both Temples, the fall of Beitar, the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and Spain in 1492, and the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto all happened on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av.

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A Note on Jewish Burial Custom

I apologize to Dr. Ehrman for not reading the rest of his article “The Skeletal Remains of Yehohanan and Their Significance“.  However, I already see a bunch of concepts relative to Jewish burial that are getting mixed up and I would like to clarify them.  Dr. Ehrman makes the claim that Jesus probably didn’t get a proper burial on the day of his crucifixion.  This would not fit with Jewish practice.  Unless there are extenuating circumstances, Jews always bury as quickly as possible.  For example, Hacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l’s funeral began only 5 hours after his passing. There are two reasons for this: 1. the burial and decomposition of the body atones for the deceased 2. the family can begin the seven day shiva process.  There is the consideration of having enough people present at the burial to give proper honor to the dead, which is often why Jewish burials are mostly conducted the next day in modern times.  Burial is only permitted during the day except in the case of a person who dies in Jerusalem.  There burials take place even at night.  In the case of a crucifixion victim it would be highly likely that Jews would have buried them that day if possible.

On this point, the NT account is correct.  However, Jews often did not bury people permanently at first but rather buried them in temporary graves and then transferred the bones to the family burial chamber.  This article has many of the early Jewish sources that discuss this.  Therefore, accounts of a highly elaborate burial where are permanent chamber was hued for the body of Jesus is highly unlikely, and the account of his death is questionably historical.

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Mourning Jonah

Every once and awhile the Bible comes to life in a way even I never expect.  One such instance was on YouTube where one of the people I was corresponding with identified himself as Assyrian.  I had assumed probably like most Jews that the Assyrians had vanished off the face of the Earth thousands of years ago or at least assimilated out of existence.  This Assyrian told me that this was not correct, and even more shocking is that he told me the Assyrians felt a certain kinship with the Jews.  The reason for this is because of the prophet Jonah, who the Bible records was swallowed by a fish running from his appointed task of telling the Assyrians to repent and then ultimately delivers the prophecy, is a revered saint by the Assyrians.  The Assyrians until today pay homage to Jonah by visiting his grave in Mosul, Iraq* for saving their community from destruction, despite the fact that they have since converted to Christianity.  For this they not only honor our holy prophet, but the Jews themselves.   Thus, Jonah’s grave not only has significant historical and cultural import, but is also a model of how people of divergent backgrounds can come to a place of mutual respect.

All of this is currently being destroyed.  ISIS, for the assumed reason that they felt Assyrian homage of the prophet Jonah was idolatrous, decided to destroy the gravesite and exhume the body of Jonah.  I don’t know if they were successful in the latter, but they have certainly accomplished the former.  This is one of the most tragic things that could happen in conflict besides for the loss of human life. Burial of the dead is one of the basic signs of humanity and someone that that Talmud calls a complete kindness since the recipient cannot return the favor. Jonah was himself a symbol of kindness, as he came to save Nineveh from the wrath of G-d despite his misgivings for the potential consequences against his own people. The Assyrians have repaid this kindness by the honor they have paid Jonah over the past 2,500+ years. A model of ethics and tolerance is being destroyed and the world is just standing by and watching.

But for the Jews it gets even worse. Besides for Israel itself, the Middle East is the seat of Jewish culture. Jewish communities existed in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran for thousands of years. A number of the traditional sites of the graves prophets are found throughout the Middle East, especially in Iraq where most Jews settled after the destruction of the First Temple. Since most of the communities of the Jews in the Middle East have been uprooted since the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948 or later, the only thing that remains are the archaeological artifacts: burned out synagogues, mikvaot, judenrein Jewish quarters, and of course cemeteries. Regardless of whether this grave was actually Jonah’s grave, the tragedy for the Jews is clear. Most of the Middle East has been erased of Jewish inhabitants. Now the memory of our presence is being scrubbed as well. For this the Jews need to mourn as well.

*The article is written with the assumption that this is in fact the grave of Jonah. Another tradition says that his grave is in Mashhad, Israel. While the tradition this article is based on might be incorrect, the message of the article still holds true.

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Knowledge of Good and Evil-A JVO Question

The following question was asked on Jewish Values Online:

How is the Law the knowledge of good and evil?. Is the good and evil related to being in covenant relation with God? So it is good by using it only if you are in a unbroken covenant? Example: The Israelites broke the covenant (see prophet Jeremiah). They await a new covenant not like the Law of Moses. If the Law is the old covenant, is it evil to keep the Law? Is that what the knowledge of good and evil means? Law used in covenant and used out of covenant results in good and evil? All Blessings upon the Israel of God Russ

This is my answer:


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The Three Weeks Start Early

Starting Tuesday, the Jewish people will be observing a memorial period lasting three weeks ending on August 5, a day called Tisha B’Av.  A disproportionate number of national tragedies have befallen our people during this time period, a period for which most of the Northern Hemisphere is a time of joy and good times.  However, for the Jews the Three Weeks have started early, and appear that they will go into overtime this year.

The murders of Eyal, Naftali, and Gilad have really shaken up the Jewish community, in Israel and abroad.  Besides the fact that three of our boys were killed for no reason besides being Jewish, the murders undermined a sense of security that we were safe from such attacks.  The unspoken blow to our sense of security was the fact these three boys were hitchhiking, unheard of in America but a common way of travel in Israel because of the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie.  I don’t imagine Israelis will stop doing it but may start thinking twice, which is already bad enough.  The murder of Mohammed Abu Khdair has been similarly tragic for the Jewish community because besides the fact someone died, it undermined our own self-understanding that “Jews don’t murder.”   The fact is that despite our community’s abhorrence of violence, it does happen, and when it does it is the talk of the media for a long time.  And then there is the resulting war…

These three weeks are called in Hebrew the time of בין המצרים, the times between constraints.  The suffering we have endured, and continue to endure, are not just tragic because of the bad things that happen.  No one wants to see the loss of human life, but that’s just the visible part of the tragedy.  What is unseen is the true loss, the decrease in productivity and overall quality of human life.  Israel, the country that produced 16805 patents, Zohar Argov and Idan Reichal, and is the restored center of Jewish and Torah life, is now literally setting fire to their money by bombing Gaza.  The fact that Israel has no choice to go to war does not make war a less wasteful activity.  The citizens of Gaza, who nine years ago had hope of building their own country and living with growth and stability have been once again dragged by their leaders into conflict, suffering, and loss of life.  This is constraints: the inability to live happy, productive lives.

I do not know how to solve the situation.  I can only say that events erupting at this time is not a coincidence.  We need to recognize this and make a commitment to self-improvement.  Specifically, we need to personally learn to empathize with the pain of our brothers and sisters in Israel.  My rabbi has specifically advocated giving up a little something like sugar in your coffee, or Rav Hayim Kainyevsky who has given up his daily walk.  Maybe think about doing something positive as well, taking on another mitzvah, act of kindness, learning, something.  This is what we can do to alleviate the ‘restrictions’.

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Kulturkampf From The Pulpit

The world, and particularly the news media, is focused on the ongoing battle between Republic and Democrat, liberal and conservative, in the political arena.   However, the battle for the soul of America is happening much closer to home.  An exact parallel of the political struggle is taking place in our houses of worship.  Orthodox religion is under constant assault, not only from the liberal media and secular colleges, but very often within religious denominations themselves.  The left wing of many religious movements are attempting to infuse liberal value systems into traditional religions and make radical changes to doctrine.  Examples can be found in many of the major world confessions:

  • Liberation Theology, a mixture of Catholicism and some Marxist motifs, has caused an ideological rift between the Latin American Church and the rest of the Catholic world, though with the election of the current Pope there seems to be at least an effort to reconciliation and moderation.
  • The American Episcopalian Church has embraced the liberal position on most if not all of modern social issues, alienating itself from its parent body the very conservative Anglican church.
  • Open Orthodoxy, a rehashing of early Conservative Judaism with an injection of modern liberalism, is attempting to redefine Orthodox Judaism as social justice and uses its relationship with the secular media to exert pressure on the Orthodox community to accept their reforms.
  • ‘Western Buddhism’ is under criticism from its traditional counterpart in the East for misrepresenting the Buddha’s teachings in order to dress up modern liberalism with exotic ritual.

The fact of the matter is that this divide and reinvention of religion is more important than the political, and should bother liberals as much as conservatives.  For better or worse, religion has become a consumer product.  However, to be a viable product it needs to offer something other products don’t.  When religion mimics the values of the day, its value as a product diminishes or disappears entirely.  None other that Christopher Hitchens said that he believed believers should be a foil against atheists, if for no other reason that to sharpen his arguments.

But it’s more than that.  Religion does give guidance and explain the world that science and academia simply cannot.  Religion also provides for stability and values.  Rather than robbing people of free choice, it empowers them to evaluate their lives and the outside world and gives them the choice not to go with the flow.  In a world that says ‘yes, yes, yes!”, the traditional world helps people to put the brakes on and evaluate whether something is a quality idea or not.

A student, who happens to have serious issues with religion, once asked me why I didn’t take a job at a Conservative synagogue.  I asked her straight out: would you prefer a principled rabbi or a Pez dispenser rabbi.  Begrudgingly, she admitted the principled rabbi.  End of the day, people want their religion to be respectable, and liberal introductions into traditional religion erode that.










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The Hidden Tragedy of #eyalnaftaligilad-TOI

There’s very little I can say that hasn’t been said about the tragic murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar.  I just wanted to share this one related thought about the impact of their deaths on the Jewish world, and the unfortunate reality that not all Jews united in mourning.


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What is Halacha?

A simple introduction to Jewish law.  Uploaded for the merit to redeem captives יעקב נפתלי בן רחל דבורה. גלעד מיכאל בן בת גלי. איל בן אירס תשורה

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