Friday, April 30, 2004

Kiruv Revisited

Following up in response to comments on earlier posts, I would like to make the following observations:

1. My post was about the Chareidi worldview involved in Kiruv. This is independent of the question of whether Kiruv workers or organizations make any money. I believe that Aish ha-Torah is doing quite well for itself and some involved in Kiruv are no paupers. However, Reb Yaakov is right in that many toil for Kiruv making minimal salaries. I strongly believe that organizations should be free to spend money as they please and we should only object to organizations that we personally support. Therefore I don't donate to Aish ha-Torah.

2. The readers pointed out three perspectives on Kiruv:
a) "We" have the "Truth" and let us enlighten you.
b) Let us help you in your personal and spiritual development.
c) Community building.

So even when a Rabbi comes in to a town with the first perspective, he often evolves into the third.

Aish ha-Torah in their website and in their promotional material promote the second perspective, but in my limited experience with them, they really held the first perspective. Is this a bait-and-switch? Or have they shifted their attitude in the past 10 years?

3. Are Modern Orthodox Kiruv Organizations (e.g. the MJE) different in their attitude towards Kiruv than more Chareidi ones?

4. Lastly, I would like to hear from people who have been Makareiv and whether my critique is valid or not.

Comments-[ comments.]

Tying together two posts

I blogged a while back about Jewish identity and how I had no problem with people constructing and defining their Jewish identity as they choose. This week, I blogged about three things people want in life. To tie them together, people's Jewish identity often serves those those three purposes. It gives their lives meaning/significance; it creates a moral order; and it connects them both to other Jews and to the Jewish tradition. Any discussion of Judaism or Jewish identity must acknowledge this, or else it is bound to be lacking.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2004

On Kiruv Rechokim & Kerovim (corrected)

The basic premise behind most of Kiruv which underlies the Chareidi worldview is that everyone who is not an Orthodox Jew is not an Orthodox Jew for one of two reason:
1) They don't know better.
2) They know better, but are lying to themselves so that they can live their non-halakhic lifestyle.

This view permeates the entire yeshivish world and their worldview. I hope to flesh out the implications of this position in the future.

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What people want in life

What everyone wants in life (beyond the basics of food, shelter, clother, for survival) can be summarized into three things:

1) Connections/companionship

2) Meaning/significance
3) Order.

1. People want to feel connected on some level even (and sometimes often) in superficial ways. For example, for many Jews connection to other Jews is the beginning and end of their Judaism. There are innumerable ways of feeling connected to other people and often that is what people are seeking.

2. People want to feel as if their lives and actions have greater significance.
This is different than

3. Order. Which is having an order in your life/universe. This order could be 1) Physical (in the most literal sense), 2) Intellectual, 3) Histrorical, 4) Spiritual.
With these three principles, most human endeavors can be explained.

Comments-[ comments.]

Thursday, April 22, 2004

New Interfaith Message Board

The Lobby is up.
We have been working for a couple of weeks on an Catholic/Jewish message board (expanding the interactions of bloggers communities of different faiths), and we are launching it this weekend.
It is currently being housed at: .

I would appreciate it if anyone who thinks that this if a good idea, could publicize it as widely as possible. Thank you.

Comments-[ comments.]

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Mauss and the Singles Problem

One of the more interesting Anthropology books written in the 20th Century is The Gift by Marcel Mauss. While explicitly an analysis about gift giving among the Northwestern Indians (the Potlatch), it has many wider implications for humankind as a whole.

Among the lessons derived from the study (by some) is that most societies do not like surpluses. This is not to say that individuals in societies do not like having more than they need, but rather a surplus is destabalizing for societies.

Counterintuitively, the more money, time, freedom, etc. that individuals (or families or other economic units) have, the greater possibility exists for them to engage in activities which undermine the status quo and are, ultimately, destructive to society.

Therefore it is in most societies/communities interests to find ways for its members to spend their extra resources until they are completely consumed. For example, the principle of ve-hegita bo yomam va-layla means that males are obligated to use all of their time studying Torah until they do not have any more free time.

It is interesting to see how they plays out in many realms in the Orthodox Jewish Communities (aside from why poverty might be good for them).

One example is the "Singles Crisis" in Orthodox Judaism. Now many people discuss, ad nauseum, this problem and, recently, this has become the Cause Celebre of the year (replacing both abuse and children going off the derech).

Now, while there many be many people who are genuinely concerned about single people who are suffering emotionally (or have to suffer through repeated bad dates), for many communal leaders, I suspect the concern is one related to Mauss's book. Single Jews, generally, have more time, money, and resources, than couples/families and far fewer committments. This leads to a surplus on many fronts. With this surplus singles have the potential to get involved in many things that Jewish communal leaders would prefer that they not get involved in. Hence the concern about the "Singles Crisis". (There is more to be said about Mauss and the Orthodox Jewish Communities, but who has the time to blog?)

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Monday, April 19, 2004


I recently decided that the moral failing that I consider the worst is arrogance. Mainly because arrogance limits one's ability to change oneself. (For if I am always right, why should I change my mind/opinion/lifestyle).

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Friday, April 16, 2004

Lumdos & The Real World

It has become a habit as of late for Brisker Lumdus to be the whipping boy of every disgruntled Orthodox pseudo-intellectual. Now, though personally ambivalent about Brisk and Brisker lomdus (and with enough material to spend several weeks just blogging about Brisk) but I do feel that the criticism is often excessive and unfair.

With that preamble, I would like to spend a moment speaking about an aspect of the learning style of Yeshivos, and in particular Brisker Lumdus, that is often missed.

Lomdus, when done well, encourages its practitioners to think abstractly in their learning and come to the proper understanding of the Halakhic concept and its relationship with other Halakhic categories.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, the Rav, famously in Halakhic Man argued for the parallel between abstract Halakhic categories and Platonic ideal forms.

Now, I have to objections to people who choose to learn this way and have thought through all of the alternatives and have chosen that this is the best way to learn.

However, many students are being taught Lumdus when they know of no other types of learning and are encouraged to privilege the abstract over the practical.

Now most of life for most people does not consist of learning in a Bais ha-Medrash. It consists of (in no particular order) relationships, school, work, family, spouses, children, politics, leisure, and hundreds of small items with which we fill our days.

Now, what does this have to do with Brisker Lomdus?

Which is exactly my point. If one is going to spend somewhere between two and ten years seriously learning either full time or for a significant portion of one’s day shouldn’t that learning have a relationship to the rest of one’s life? I do not mean, that people should be learning Halakha, what they should do practically. Rather they should learn tools for integrating learning into their lives, into their experiences. When one experiences something monumental, like purchasing a house for the first time or making or losing a friend, one should be able to integrate it into the learning that one has been doing (and I don’t just mean saying a bracha). But a way of integrating one’s Judaism into one’s life.

Brisker lomdus discourages this integration by encouraging Halakha to be abstract, far removed from the mundane vagaries of our lived petty existence.

One could conceivably envision a Derech ha-Limmud (learning style) that would encourage ones learning to be integrated into one’s life and existence. One that one could use for the rest of one’s life to use one’s past and current learning to illuminate one’s struggles and challenges and find support from one’s learning for all aspects of one’s life.

Comments-[ comments.]

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Marc Shapiro Revisited

Over Yom tov, I thought up the following question for Marc Shapiro.

What would he (and his advocates) say about the following theology:
Hashem is one of many gods out there. Of course he gave us the Torah and will reward and punish us for keeping it. But he is only of hundreds (and possibly thousands) of competing Gods in the Universe.

So granted that this theology would be sufficient to require observance of Halakha, it would go against several of the Rambam's Ikkarim.

The other question is why are so many prominent anti-Chabad people silent about the Shapiro book? It is it a question of Heresy are not all Heresies created equal?

UPDATE: I am NOT referring to R. Dr. David Berger who has shown himself to be a staunch defender of traditional Jewish practices and beliefs (see his review of Menachem Kellner's Must a Jew Believe Anything in Tradition). Rather, I am referring to some of his followers.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Kinja Plug

I normally do not do plugs (especially for Nick Denton products), but I have to say that I really like Kinja.
It would be interesting for prominent web presences/bloggers to make public their Kinja profiles so that we can see what they are reading.

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Saturday, April 10, 2004


In the Blog-o-Sphere, there is a range between two poles. On the one hand there are people who fully identity themselves in their blogs (examples include Protocols or Back of the Bais). The other extreme are those who completely hide their identities known only by a pseudonym (e.g. She). And there are a lot which fall in the middle. For example Naomi Chana and Elf do not openly say who they are, but, with a little detective work, presumably someone could figure out who they are. On the other hand some group-blogs (like the Idiots or the House of Hock) contain both anonymous and named bloggers.

Now my housemate, Jonathan, doesn’t mind blogging by name. However, both myself and the Hocker would prefer, for both personal and professional reasons, to anon-o-blog. If you know who either of us are, you can e-mail us, but we prefer to maintain our anonymity for now (though perhaps, like the final terrible episodes of Bosom Buddies where the girls know that they are cross-dressing men and not women, we will eventually reveal ourselves).

Now certain people, and bloggers (such as SIW of Protocols), are opposed to anon-o-blogging. These people are motivated by a concern, partially legitimate in my opinion, that they want what SIW called J-Blogging (and I would call the Shtetl) to be established and replace that poor excuse for journalism called the Jewish Media. They think that blogs lose validity and legitimacy when they are anonymous. However, i fear that they have a very strict definition of blogging and what blogging should and should not be.

Blogging is an evolving medium and will probably continue to evolve for another few years until it becomes established and static (like other outgrowths of new media). Part of their evolution is the belief that everything should be encouraged: both named and unnamed blogging. Especially, as the Jewish community is so small (and the Orthodox Jewish community so many times smaller), the only way many people will blog will be if they blog anonymously.

A major concern, and one that is totally valid, is how are we to maintain standards and quality in the Shtetl. If people do not feel the pressure from people knowing what they blog and having to face the consequences of what they blog, what is to stop people from writing whatever they want in their blogs?

I have spent some time thinking about this and here is my answer:

In our world, in the words of a dear friend of mine, there are fine-a-menchen and grub-a-menchen. Roughly this translates as refined people and coarse people. But, as any Yiddish speaker will tell you, this distinction is much deeper. It invokes those raised by families with healthy good (maybe Jewish) values and those raised without them.

What I mean here is that people, whether blogging in name or anon-a-blogging, will have blogs which reflect their nature. Blogs, by their discursive nature, tends to reflect the personality of the blogger. Fine-a-menschen will have refined blogs and grub-a-menschen will have coarse blogs. I trust people to be able to distinguish between blogs that are refined and those that are coarse. Between blogs which are worth reading and those that are not. Between blogs which make the readers better people and those that do not.

Comments-[ comments.]

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Blogging and Avodas Hashem

A topic that has been occupying me lately, in particular by reading AB and SIW is the relationship between blogging and Avodas Hashem.

Now, there has been (too) much talk about the general nature of blogging and the role that blogging should take and the relationship between blogging and journalism, politics, intellectual life, etc and there has been some discussion about the nature of Jewish blogging, though mainly of Judaism as defined as an ethnicity or community and less of Judaism as religion.

My question is what blogging can do (positively) for one’s avodas hashem (the service of God). I know that blogging (and the internet in general) can have a very detrimental effect on one’s religion and one’s avodas hashem, but that is not the topic at hand.

The Seminarian has written in the past (albeit briefly) about the how “personal blogs” are antithetical to such Jewish values as Tzneiut/s, and Kavod Habriot/s. If someone does not understand how, I feel genuinely sorry for that person.

In the early days of the internet there was much talk about how this would revolutionize Kiruv (Jewish outreach), Jewish education, and the study of Judaism and Jewish texts. In large part, this has failed to materialize. By and large, more Jews study Judaism as they always did. Though Aish HaTorah re-branded itself as, and attempted to make a “cool Judaism” and (as they have done for decades) use Jewish identity as a way of enticing non-Orthodox Jews into ultra-Orthodox Jewish religion (maybe one of us will blog about Kiruv sometime soon).

But I am not talking about Jewish education or Kiruv; using the internet as a vehicle for accessing Jewish texts online, which has been a slow process, and most people I know still prefer books, (except when preparing source-sheets for shiurim/classes).

I am talking about Avodas Hashem, serving God, improving one’s worship through prayer, study, acts of chesed, self-introspection, etc. Now, while the internet can bring us knowledge about opportunities for chesed or shiurim or transcripts of shiurim and there are hundreds of Divrei Torah e-mailed and posted weekly, that is the same as the pre-digital days, just sped up. And in Avodas Hashem, making things “easier” is not necessary the best path.

Having the Tzeitele Katan of Reb Elimelech of Vitebsk or Yisod ve-Shoresh Ha-Avodah online might make reading about service slightly easier, but they do not make its application and implementation any less work.

Among the approaches that looked promising was an using list-servs to discuss matters of Avodah. This would be a variation on the Mussar Vaad (which itself had precedent in 16th Century and on Kabbalistic pietistic groups), but would solve spatial difficulties by bringing everyone into an online community to discuss Religious issues. However, the problem with most list-servs is that they are open. Far more people join then than should. (Incidentally, this is why I do not promote list-servs on this blog, for fear having people join and blab who should not be participating.) So most open list-servs (or even moderately moderated list-servs) end up with too much talk and not enough useful discussion.

Which is not to say that list-serv do not serve useful functions as forums to discuss such things as halakha, politics, hock, public policy, or theology. But personal religious growth, I find list-servs do not serve.

And even in groups where everyone has the right intentions, most people lack the knowledge and background (reading books and tracts about avodas hashem for serious participation; if you need a required reading list e-mail me and I will be happy to provide you with one). Or they lack any interest in pouring effort into Avodas Hashem. Even if they have moments of interests, piety is not a passive pastime.

Of course one could have a closed list-serv, but then that is merely a small selective e-mail group of similarly interested people. (Which might be the only possible route.)

So with the growth of blogs, the same question should be asked. Can they be used for Avodas Hashem (personal or communal religious growth)?

At first glance, I would say no. If only for the reasons mentioned above about Tzenius. However, there is a distinct possibility that I have been thinking about lately.

The Jewish literary tradition has been remarkable absent from spiritual diaries and biographies, as has been discussed many times (recently in Professor Yaakov Elman’s Orthodox Forum 2000 Paper). The historical exceptions are notable. Another exception is Baal Teshuva biography, which is a significant genre.

Now, I am suggesting a possibility. One of the difficulties of pietistic literature is that they often hard to relate to the “real” lived world. Real life examples are often hard to come by. A female acquaintance several years ago, when reading Sefer Cheshbon HaNefesh (which is a loose translation of Ben Franklin’s autobiography and a staple of mussar literature), complained that it didn’t have enough stories. Now most stories used to illustrate religious literature use either theoretical examples or Gedolim stories, both of which are nice and possibly useful, but often do not reflect our own experiences. Blogs have the potential to discuss personal concerns in Avodas Hashem, challenges, and concerns, in a way of illuminating and articulating our own problems.

Now the dangers here are many. Spiritual autobiography can quickly become self-righteous, shallow, self-indulgant, or silly (or all of the above). Furthermore a discussion of one’s sins can provide readers with prurient thrills, perverse pleasure, or justification for their own failings (because everyone is doing it). And lastly, most people are spiritually immature and lack the sophistication to have anything enlightening to say about Avodas Hashem in their blogs. (But I can hope for a few mature, self-aware, spiritually deep, blogs.)

Another advantage of blogging is anon-a-blogging. One can anonymously discuss one’s religious life without the self-consciousness that normally prevents any discussion of Avodas Hashem. Or the fear of consequences of discussing one’s personal challenges and concerns before one’s peers.

However, despite these dangers, this is still a possibility.

Comments-[ comments.]

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Bloggers of the Shtetl

Elder SIW, recently sent out a post asking how to spiffy up the shtetl that is the Jewish Blogging scene (knowing to SIW and Ben Cohen as jBlogs).

While some might suggest that our man I. has jumped the proverbial Shark, I think that this is a fine time to reflect on the nature of the Shtetl.

Now there are three types of blogs in the shtetl:
1) Personal blogs. Basically the classic definition of a weblog, an online diary, describing their life, with varying degrees of personal or intimate details about their life. I recently posted (relating to an article in OU's Jewish Action) my criticism of such blogging and how they were antithetical to tznius.
2) Links Blog. Kishmo Kain Hu. They provide links to various articles, blogs, articles, shiurim, etc. Sometimes with and sometimes without commentary.
3) Pundit blogs. These offer their opinion on any number of a range of matters
Now some might include a fourth type, which has strait information, facts, etc. but I have found these to be few and far between.

The most traffic would be #2, such as Protocols, the Town Crier, and Jewsweek. If particularly juicy, #1, attracts a crowd.

Now, I have previously explained why I would not do either #1 or #2. The question is whether a Blog can survive based solely upon my ravings and ideas.

SIW, like other journalist Bloggers wants to be head Blogger (or King of the Bloggers or at least of the Sheva Tuvei ha-Ir) of the Global Shtetl. (I am happy with the local hocker post). Therefore he wants Blogging to be THE NEW JEWISH JOURNALISM. Part of this is that he has issues with anonyblogging and anonybloggers (like myself; more on this later, maybe). He wants blogging to be ESTABLISHED and anything which messes with his sense of establishment, should be frowned upon.

I don't know. If he wants to make his blog something more than just a hobby (something like ham radios for the digital age), that's fine. Of course, I hold that they are a mere hobby (though definately not harmless).

Comments-[ comments.]

The Road to Lakewood (continued)

I am beginning to feel like one of these really bad New York Times series, where they string together (sometimes tangentially) related articles to sort of unify what is otherwise a scattershot of weekly stories.

I am hoping to conclude soon. But before I do, I would like to chart out the standard path to Lakewood (a.k.a. BMG) for most Yeshiva students.

Now as a mode of contrast let me compare it to the standard route for most modern Orthodox students:
12 years at a Modern Orthodox Day School (single sex or coed) => One or two years in Israel at any one of a dozen Yeshivot => College (YU or any one of a half dozen other Universities) => Work, Marriage, Grad School, for some, Smicha at RIETS => Life....

In contrast let's look at a fairly standard Yeshivish Yingeleit's path:
8 years in a local Yeshiva => 4 years at one or more Yeshiva High School (local or out of town) where the majority of the day is spent studying Gemara => Bais Medrash (which may or may not include the senior year of High School) usually in a different city, but in North America, where it is Gemara all day for anywhere from 2-4 years => Israel. One tries to get into a "top" Yeshiva (Reb A.J.'s Brisk, Reb Dovid's Brisk, Brisker Kollel, Reb Zvi Kaplan, etc.) or else go somewhere else, and barring that, there is always The Mir. Once spends an indeteminate number of years in Israel until one is ready to settle down and get married in => Lakewood. There was once a rule called the Freezer, where Bachurim could not date until they had spent three months studying at Lakewood (with an exception for local women, who needed the Shidduchim, so they got a head start). After being in Lakewood and married, one continues to learn, usually supported by a small stipend, one's wife, and, sometimes, parents or in-laws until one can no longer afford to and then decides what they want to do with their lives. This could mean a)Taking a job in Chinuch or Rabbanus b) Joining a community Kollel or c) Going off to work.
Of course there are dozens of variations on this life path. But this is a fairly standard series of choices in life.

Comments-[ comments.]

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