Category Archives: News & Events

All the news that’s fit to comment.

New York Same Sex Marriage Law’s Religious Exemptions

Many thanks to the Loyal Reader(s) to sent over the link to the full text of New York’s same sex marriage law just signed permitting gay marriage in the state of New York. As I wrote extensively, my position on the subject was less about restricting gay marriage than about maintaining religious exemptions. For those interested, here are the relevant passages from New York’s new law.

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Posted in Law, News & Events, Politics. Tagged with , , , , , .

Why Orthodox Jews Should Not Oppose Legalizing Same Sex Marriage

On May 23 2011 several prominent Orthodox Jewish organizations issued a joint statement declaring their opposition to legalizing same sex-marriage. The brief statement is as follows:

On the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage, the Orthodox Jewish world speaks with one voice, loud and clear:

We oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family.

The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. While we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, we believe the institution of marriage is central to the formation of a healthy society and the raising of children. It is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage would be detrimental to society.

Moreover, we are deeply concerned that, should any such redefinition occur, members of traditional communities like ours will incur moral opprobrium and may risk legal sanction if they refuse to transgress their beliefs. That prospect is chilling, and should be unacceptable to all people of good will on both sides of this debate.

The integrity of marriage in its traditional form must be preserved.

This statement was issued not only by Orthodox institutions considered “right-of center” such as Agudath Israel of America or National Council of Young Israel, but also by more moderate Orthodox organizations such as the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).1 Unlike most religious proclamations which are directed towards specific religious communities, this joint statement advocates a political position – though based on religious principles – to the secular world beyond the normal scope of religious influence. To be sure, this joint statement is hardly the first time rabbinic organizations have issued political statements. Across all major denominations, the Orthodox RCA, Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, and Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis have all passed resolutions advocating public polices exemplifying their respective religious beliefs, with few (if any) complaining about the separation of church and state.

But due to the inherent subjective moral arguments against same-sex marriage, I argue that Jews – especially the Orthodox – would be better served in not opposing its legalization.
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Posted in Jewish Culture, Law, News & Events, Politics, Religion. Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

A Use For A Liberal Arts Education

There’s a running debate on the merits of a liberal arts education. Detractors generally claim that it’s useless in “the real world” and supporters generally counter that it “teaching you how to think” or provides some non-monetary worth. But there are times when being moderately well-read could have some financial benefit.1
Today’s NYPost reports that the Manhattan DA’s office is investigating fraud related to the demolition of the 9/11 damaged Deutsche Bank building. Thus far the demolition process has compounded tragedies from the worst of political bureaucracies to the fire which claimed the lives of two firefighters. WSJ’s Daniel Henninger covered the negligence in detail.
But aside from the general risks of government waste, there were some more obvious red flags. As the NYPost reports:

The construction site’s manager, Bovis Lend Lease Corp., which was contracted by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. to oversee the entire $150 million project, retained the John Galt Company to demolish the building and remove hazardous materials from it.
The LMDC, which purchased the land and the building for $90 million, was under pressure to get the demolition moving because the building was slated to be replaced with a new structure and remained a bitter eyesore next to Ground Zero.
“They were in a bind and wanted it done,” one of the sources said.
“They did not ask too many questions, and that may be why there was room for f- – -ing around.”
As it turned out, Galt was little more than a corporate entity utilizing officials from two other companies working on the site: Regional Scaffolding and Hoisting Co., and Safeway Environmental Corp., which had its own questionable histories and little experience.[Emphasis added]

Readers of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged will immediately recognize the name “John Galt” as one of the stories main characters. But since “John Galt” is a normal enough name and not as well known literarilly it would be easier to pass off than “Dumbledore and Associates” or “Hamlet Incorporated.” But had anyone literate been paying attention, someone should have at least asked if it was a legitimate company. On the other hand, given the irony of The John Galt Company being instrumental in government waste and special interest pandering, it’s possible the founders were just being postmodern.2
In either case, the lesson here is that liberal arts can be rewarding – either in identifying fraud, or apparently, perpetuating it pretentiously.

1. Excluding quiz shows.
2. It’s possible they could have been referring to the Scottish novelist, but I find this reference more ironic.

Posted in News & Events.

Subprime Opportunities

In the world of competitive finance, there’s never a bad time to make money. Sure the subprime market has many feeling the pinch, but the real opportunists find ways to profit in any circumstance. For example, one strategy is short selling or in other words, betting on a loss. In a must read NYTimes article, Ben Stein examines Goldman Sach’s practices of knowingly creating and selling flawed financial investments while covering themselves in the process.
But it’s not just the Big Guys who are getting all the breaks. In my favorite story of the subprime fiasco, some people are fighting foreclosures with impressive Talmudic reasoning:

A Federal Court Judge rejected 14 foreclosure claims by Deutsche Bank, which was trying to collect on securitized sub-prime mortgage loans it acquired. The judge stated that the Bank did not really own the ?bad loans? because it acquired them after defaults had already occurred. He asked the bank to prove it held the mortgage at the time of the foreclosure notices or said he will dismiss its claims.

The snowballing effect of subprime defaults is the result of repackaging, revaluing, and reselling various debts to various investors. However, once the debt is securitized and resold it can be difficult to track down who owned what and when. As a result Deutsche Bank not only loses on the initial investment, but cannot even recoup the losses through the typical hedge of property foreclosure.
Almost makes you feel sorry for them.

Posted in News & Events.

Taking Each Other Down A Peg

דרש בר קפרא, מאי דכתיב: “ויתד תהיה לך על אזנך?” אל תקרי אזנך אלא על אוזנך,
שאם ישמע אדם דבר שאינו הגון יניח אצבעו באזניו -בבלי כתובות ה:א-ב
Bar Kafra expounded: What is the meaning of the verse “And you shall have pegs (yated) among your tools”? (Deut. 23:14) Do not read “your tools” (azeinecha) but rather “your ears” (oznecha) such that if someone were to hear something inappropriate, he should plug his ears with his fingers (B. Ketuvot 5a)

I had barely taken a few steps in the apartment upon returning from Chicago when Roommate Yonah asks me if I had been following the big news on the blogosphere. Apparently, the Israeli newspaper Yated Ne’eman printed more missives directed against Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) where Roommate Yonah is currently finishing smikha. This of course led to several discussions, points, counterpoints, and of course the expected flamewars.

During my time off I had intentionally minimized my web surfing, so I was blissfully ignorant of this whole brouhaha. My initial reaction when Yonah summarized the happenings is exactly how I feel right now:

To be perfectly blunt, I just don’t care.

In other circumstances I would not waste the time and energy in continuing this discussion, but I do feel that a meta-analysis would do some good. Specifically, why is it that Yated’s editorials are so important to so many people to warrant such outrage?
The simple answer is just that people don’t like being insulted in any context, especially regarding one’s spiritual beliefs (and possibly inherited traditions). When insulted and rejected on such a personal level, it should not be surprising to find people react defensively. But this is only a partial explanation since there are many occasions when we or our faiths are insulted and yet we ignore those insults without incident.

First, there is the issue of giving undue respect to the authors of the editorials and letters. I have a theory that the impact of insults and criticisms (and conversely compliments) is proportional to how much we respect our tormentors. For example, a five year old teasing “you’re stupid” can be disregarded more easily than hearing those same words from your professor or boss. The difference is obvious; we are more concerned with how our professors and superiors view our intellectual acumen than a random immature brat.
Religious attacks are no different in this regard in that we only will be sensitive to attacks from those people whose religious beliefs we value or respect. What I do not understand is how Yated would deserve this level of acknowledgment. While there could be a reasonable debate as to which hashkafot are “acceptable” in Jewish thought, it appears that Yated failed in not only presenting a rational argument but did not bother to do rudimentary fact-checking in the interest of determining exactly what YCT represents. People who would criticize as such – both in terms of argument and evidence – would ordinarily not be considered a “bar plugta” deserving of a response.

Herein lies the second issue in that sometimes even absurd positions need rebutting. When the Niturei Karta people infamously participated in the Iran Holocaust Conferencethere was a near-universal outcry and even public protests. These were not done out of respect for Niturei Karta, but to demonstrate that their positions were fanatical and outside the bounds of the Jewish community.
But for whom were these protests staged? I doubt that any member of Niturei Karta would look at the throngs of people holding placards and consequently reverse his positions, and I suspect that the protesters had no such expectations. Rather, the statement was made for the uninformed people who could be influenced by the Niturei Karta’s presence or more importantly a reaffirmation of one’s own beliefs and to demonstrate solidarity in their own common cause.

When Yated publishes such editorials, they do so for a readership which demands little by way of journalistic evidence to justify existing religious prejudices. In a similar vein, YCT promotes its hashkafa not to convince the Haredi community of their legitimacy but to reach out to those who would be receptive. What makes these flamewars particularly pointless is that in the exchange people forget that they will not convince people who are predisposed to their own opinions, especially when the argument is as juvenile as “yes, you’re koferim” and “no we’re not – you’re the koferim.”

Despite the general need for more religious dialogue, we also have to realize that sometimes it is more useful not to engage in certain conversations. While YCT supporters could be justified in defending the institution, they ought to realize that not much will be gained in a confrontation but instead would be better served by focusing their energies on those whom they have a chance of influencing.
As for Yated, those who are predisposed to disagree with their opinions have a Talmudic suggestion for a more appropriate response.

Posted in Jewish Culture, News & Events. Tagged with , .

A Conservative Compromise

Conservative Judaism recently made headlines with their reevaluation of homosexuality in Jewish law. Although Conservative Judaism rejected homosexuality in 1992 (PDF), there was a request to reconsider the issue. When we covered homosexuality from an Orthodox perspective in “Lonely Men of Faith1 we referenced the debate between Rabbi Elliot Dorf and Rabbi Joel Roth, but there has obviously been significantly more discussion on the matter culminating in yesterday’s decision. From what limited information we have at this time, this new decision is hardly as groundbreaking as people might think.

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Posted in Culture, Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, News & Events. Tagged with , , .

Spitting Headache

New Scientist reports on an advancement in painkillers which might seem hard to swallow:

Saliva from humans has yielded a natural painkiller up to six times more powerful than morphine, researchers say.
The substance, dubbed opiorphin, may spawn a new generation of natural painkillers that relieve pain as well as morphine but without the addictive and psychological side effects of the traditional drug.

On the downside, it kind of gives new meaning to “lohesh ‘al hamaka” (M. Sanhedrin 10:1), so if you’re planning on taking this, just don’t say anything.

Posted in News & Events, Science and Technology.

Holocaust Settlement Disputed

Remember the Swiss banks’ billion dollar settlement to Holocaust survivors back in 2000? Turns out things are far from settled. New York Magazine has an excellent article detailing the battle over legal fees, currently at $4,760,000.

The short version is that Burt Neuborne, and NYU law professor, took the case pro bono for the litigation. However, after the settlement was reached the question became how to distribute more than $1 billion to hundreds of thousands of people, understandably, not a minor undertaking. According to the article, “Neuborne declared that he had worked 8,178 hours since 1999, at $700 an hour. After applying a 25 percent discount, he staked out his bottom line: $4,088,500.” When word got out and people complained, “he removed 1,600 disputed hours from his bill, but he also removed his discount, raising his fee by $671,500 in the process. The bill now comes to $4.76 million.”
And that’s just Neuborne’s side of the story, and we’re not even giong to get into how he calculated those 8,178 (or the 6,578 adjusted) hours.

The article does an excellent job covering the murkier sides of legal wrangling and deal-making. For one juicy example:

Then Judge Korman (largely following the proposal of a special master tasked with devising a plan) decided that the looted-assets survivors would get nothing at all. There were just too many of them, he reasoned, and how could anyone prove which looted assets ended up in Switzerland? Korman ruled that using their $100 million share of the settlement to help destitute survivors would be the “next best thing.” He ordered that 75 percent of the aid for Jewish survivors be spent in the former Soviet Union, where he considered the needs overwhelming; 21 percent would go to other foreign nations. Only 4 percent would be used to help survivors in the U.S. And that’s the root of the trouble.

While the whole saga is completely understandable, it is no less simultaneously disturbing on many levels, just what you’d expect when you mix the legal system with Jewish cultural politics.

Posted in News & Events.

Backstage At A Bat Mitzvah

You might remember the post we did a while back on extravegant Bat Mitzvahs. Today’s Fark links to a cameramen’s detailed account of the $10 Million Bat Mitzvah held at New York’s Rainbow Room last November. Quoth the cameraman:

This wasn’t a concert in a restaurant. This was a f—–g arena show tucked into a closet. This was overkill. This was excessive. This was a rich man’s fantasy concert, not a Bat Mitzvah.

Hard to argue with the assessment given the entertainment:

  • Eagles Don Henley and Joe Walsh
  • Stevie Nicks
  • 50 Cent
  • Tom Petty
  • Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry

I can’t imagine what her wedding will be like, but if it’s also going to be in NYC, I’m available.

Posted in Jewish Culture, News & Events.

An Almost Real Estate

One of the perks of living in America is that religious institutions are exempt from several taxes. Of course, there are rules for such things and of course, they’re not always followed.
Take this recent example from the Jewish penal colony known as Rockland County. A multiple family house owned by a shul was granted a property tax exemption under the pretense that it would house the Rabbi and two assistant rabbis. The problem is that there were several illegal conversions to the building and there was no proof that the other rabbis actually lived there.

Gedalia Oberlander, who identified himself to the Assessment Review Board as the rabbi of the congregation, said he lived in one of the apartments, and two assistant rabbis lived in the others.
“I feel that not having a certificate of occupancy shouldn’t interfere with having the exemption,” Oberlander told the board at its meeting Thursday.

Even more comical is that they’re having trouble finding the shul itself:

“There was no CO (certificate of occupancy) and we’re unable to confirm the location of the synagogue itself, seeing that it wasn’t in that location,” Shedler said yesterday.

And for the coup de grace, the name of the shul?
Congregation Merkoz Halacha

Posted in News & Events.