Monday, July 28, 2008


When I was a kid, I had a “gedolim album”. I cut out pictures of Rabbis with long beards from magazines and proudly pasted them into my album. But who are these rabbis?

I’m often told, by those who are more to the “right” religiously than I am, that as an Orthodox Jew, I must listen to the “gedolim”. Basically, there are a set of individuals who are culturally agreed upon as the leaders of Jewry of this generation and that their word is law. “Da’as Torah” deems that I have no right to question their decisions since they are naturally on a much higher spiritual plane than I am.

The absurdity of this should be self-evident, but I’ll lay it out nonetheless.

This is a group of men with whom I have very little in common other than the fact that they and I both keep roughly the same set of daily requirements to be an observant Jew (though we don’t even agree on many details of those requirements.)

I know virtually nothing about these individuals on a personal level. I’ve heard a couple of stories that supposedly attest to their greatness – stories that smack of Jewish urban legends.

Additionally, I’ve been told about decisions and statements they’ve made about society & culture – decisions & ideas I fundamentally disagree with and seem to me to be the product of ignorance about the greater world, about the way working people think, about the way women function & think today, and about basic needs of most people who live outside the cloistered yeshiva world.

They have smicha, but then again, so does my accountant.

They may be extremely learned in Talmud, and in the voluminous literature of centuries of rishonim & achronim that came afterwards, far more than I am, but I don’t know this for sure, I only know that there is some sort of community consensus that they are.

However, there is no “Gadol PhD” that assures me that they are experts in all human knowledge and that their wisdom is of the superior sort. There is no agreed upon set of standards that establish them as generational leaders. There is only a vague community consensus that is spread by word of mouth and popularity within certain communities which I am not part of.

They almost certainly, on average, know far less science and classical literature than I do. They know far less about the business world than I do. They know less about economics than I do. They probably know less about politics than I do, other than in areas of specific concern to their communities.

They certainly don’t watch CNN, so when they get information about what’s going on in the world, it’s secondhand at the least, filtered through followers who bring them this news.

I don’t doubt that they are probably kind & generous individuals whose constituents are generally happy with the way they rule. But I am not one of their constituents. I barely know who they are.

So let’s summarize.

The “gedolim” are a group of people who I don’t know, whose halachic knowlege is probably superior to mine, though I only know this through heresay, whose knowledge is almost certainly inferior to my own in most other realms, who I don’t know personally and whose communities am I am not part of, and who have no degree other than that of Rabbi, which is held by many thousands of others.

Exactly why should I be deferring to their opinions about how I should live my life, who I should vote for, where I should live, and how I should raise my children?? Because someone tells me that that is what Orthodox Jews do?

No thank you. I am a thinking being, not a sheep.

If I want to know if a particular pot needs to be kashered I’ll ask my local rabbi. If I want to know why my back hurts, I’ll go to a doctor. If I want to decide who to vote for, I’ll look at the issues and make an informed decision.

And if I want to put my life in anyone’s hands, it’s God’s, not a group of guys I don’t know.
UPDATE July 30: Harry Maryles just wrote a good post on basically the same topic

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How big is your rally?

I’ve always been terrible at counting crowds. I have some innate senses that are very finely honed, like my extremely keen sense of direction. But estimating crowds? I’ve always been terrible at it and I don’t even try anymore. If someone asks me how many people were at my shul on a given Shabbat, I just shrug. I haven’t the faintest clue.

Well, it’s nice to know I’m not alone. There’s an article in the NY Times today that debunks those massive crowd estimates for concerts in Central Park over the last few decades (HT:DB). James Taylor drew 250,000 people in 1979 in the Sheep Meadow? Elton John attracted 300,000 fans on the Great Lawn in 1980? In 1981, Simon & Garfunkel banished any sound of silence with 400,000 people? A whopping 750,000 devotees of Garth Brooks packed the North Meadow in 1997?

All fantasy, it turns out. On July 12, Bon Jovi played a free concert on the Great Lawn. And this time, the lawn was cordoned off, and though the concert was free, they actually individually counted the people who came in. The final tally, when the Great Lawn was filled to capacity? A paltry 48,538. Which means that Elton John’s 300,000 in the same space? Impossible.

It seems that the crowd counting till now has been more guesswork than anything else. And evidently, the “officials” who made those older estimates are no better at guesstimating crowds than I am.

All of this makes me wonder about the crowd estimates of the massive pro-Israel rally that I (and half the people I knew) attended in Washington, DC on April 15, 2002.

It looked like a huge crowd to me, but I couldn't tell from the middle how big it was. Some papers reported "tens of thousands", a couple reported "over 100,000" and the rally organizers reported over 250,000. On the bus back to NY, one guy was listening to the radio and was getting almost apoplectic over what he felt were underreported numbers, yelling "we've been robbed!"

Turns out, nobody really has any idea how many people came, though I suspect it’s closer to the “tens of thousands” reported by the press than the 250,000 reported by the rally organizers.

The lesson? There isn’t really one, I guess, except not to trust “official” crowd estimates.
Related posts:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Feminism: The kollel's best friend

I've heard many charedim decrying feminism, expressing the notion that it's a secular value, that men and women were given different roles, and that the woman's primary purpose is to raise Jewish children and show quiet strength and wisdom in that private, rather than public, role.

It occurs to me that one of the main contrinutions of the feminism of the late 20th century was enabling women's entry into the workplace in massive numbers and in roles and salaries previously denied them.

The irony is that it is this very success that allows wives of kollel members to work while their husbands learn. Sure, there were a few women in the workplace before feminism, but there weren't enough jobs available to women to support an entire generation of charedi men while they learned. Feminism gave all those women jobs and relatively decent salaries to support their typically large families.

So kollel guys, the next time you're tempted to bash feminism, think about the fact that your whole way of life wouldn't exist without the hard-won rights that women in the 60's, 70's and 80's campaigned for.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dry Bones racist?

Is it just me, or is the imagery in the 4th panel of this recent Dry Bones cartoon kind of racist? It seems like a throwback to the way Asians were portrayed in the media for a good part of the 20th century.

It's even more disturbing in the full-color version portrayed here. When I saw it in the paper, it was in black & white and you couldn't see the yellowish cast the author gave to the Chinese faces.

I'll give Yaakov Kirschen the benefit of the doubt in assuming he didn't intend this to be racist, and it's just the best way he could think of to draw Chinese people. He seems somewhat old-school, has been writing his comic strip for some 35 years, and lives in Israel, where he probably interacts with few Asians. He's probably not aware that the image could be interpreted as an insulting stereotype.

But why would the NY Jewish Week print it in their July 11 issue? Surely they have someone on staff over there who vets these things? This was a poor choice on their part.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Prisoner swap

The Israeli prisoner swap with Hizballah - was it the right thing to do?

This isn't the first time Israel has made such prisoner swaps. The terms in this case were much better than in some of the past ones.

That being said, it's still very problematic. I honestly don't know what the correct decision was. Not doing the deal and letting the fate of the 2 soldiers be uncertain for many years would have been the wrong thing to do. But making this deal and emboldening Hizballah was also the wrong thing to do.

So the choice was between 2 wrong decisions, not between a wrong and a right one. Which was less wrong? I don't know.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Living Single

I was reading a blog this afternoon by a young woman who I think is in her 20’s (not sure of her exact age) and who is frustrated by her unmarried status. She seems to be in the yeshivish community and her dating habits are by the standards of that community. More than anything else, she seems to be waiting, and not pursuing any larger things in life other than waiting to be married.

Here’s what I wrote in a comment on her blog:


I got married at 33. Yes, I'm male and I was (and am) modern Orthodox, so it was easier for me, but I think the following might still be helpful.

I never felt those years before I got married were wasted. I matured, figured out who I really was, and gained many, many friends, from many walks of life. I gained perspective on the world and learned to appreciate others. I built a career, traveled to Europe, went hiking and camping in national parks, read & learned. I learned new skills, sang in a choir, and developed new hobbies.

And yes, I dated. But I never approached dating as an all-or-nothing game. I enjoyed the company of many young women, even when it didn't go past a second or third date. We went to concerts, movies, plays, and sporting activities. We visited historical sites, museums, and went to lectures.

In short, I lived.

To me, it doesn't sound like you're living. It sounds like you're waiting. What makes you think that marriage will suddenly make you live? Marriage doesn't change a person automatically.

Go out and Live. Then you'll meet someone who's also alive and be happy with him.