Category Archives: Culture

All things in non-Jewish culture.

The “Defensible Border” Fallacy

The past two weeks have renewed global interest in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Between President Obama’s original reference to the 1967 borders, a modification of sorts to the AIPAC convention, and a response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish and political communities have been arguing over how to make sense of the policies.

One recurring theme has been the repeated call of defensible borders. Under the assumption that peace in Israel must consist of land swap with a forthcoming Palestinian state, parties on all sides have repeated that the border between the two states be “defensible,” without further clarification as to what that would mean in terms of specific borders.

However, a more significant question regarding the “defensible border” requirement is why would it be necessary. The “land for peace” mantra assumes that the Palestinian people are really interested in peace, but are oppressed by their Israeli occupiers. Logically then, if the Palestinians were to form their own nation, then it would be as Mahmoud Abbas stated, “a peace-loving nation, committed to human rights, democracy, the rule of law and the principles of the United Nations Charter.”

But if we were to take Abbas at his word, then why would Israel’s borders need to be defensible. From whom would Israel need defending if not the “peace-loving” nation? For comparison’s sake, the US / Canadian Border is 5,525miles, and yet despite this extremely long border, US is more concerned with illegal border crossings than military attacks. The reason is obvious; the United States is not concerned with having “defensible” borders with Canada because there is no risk of military attack and there is no risk of military attack because the United States is actually at peace with Canada.

The fact that “defensible borders” is still employed in Israeli / Palestinian rhetoric demonstrates that even proponents of a Palestinian state are not fully convinced by the “peace-loving” intentions. Any call for “land for peace” based on “defensible borders” is thus paradoxical to the point of dishonest for it assumes that Israel would still face a military threat despite acquiescing territory.

While I do not have a solution to the conflict, the process would probably be helped if people were more honest about their positions, intentions, and true motivations.

Posted in Israel, Politics, Religion. 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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Eretz Yisrael / The Land of Israel In Rabbinic Thought

In a special class in honor of Yom Haatzmaut, Rabbi Yuter explores Rabbinic perspectives regarding the land of Israel, including those from Babylonian sources.

Eretz Yisrael in Rabbinic Thought Sources (PDF)

Eretz Yisrael in Rabbinic Thought

Posted in Jewish History, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Lectures, Podcasts, Politics, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law Part 3: Halakhic Labor Laws

In part 3 of his Economics and Social Justice series, Rabbi Yuter addresses the topic of Jewish Labor Laws from a holistic perspective, balancing the rights and obligations of both the employer and the employee.

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law – Halakhic Labor Laws Sources (PDF)

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law – Halakhic Labor Laws

Posted in Economics, Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Judaism, Podcasts, Random Acts of Scholarship, Religion, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , , , , , , , , , .

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law Part 2: Halakhic Market Controls

In part 2 of the Economics and Social Justice series, Rabbi Yuter discusses some examples of market controls in Jewish Law.

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law – Halakhic Market Controls Sources (PDF)

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law – Halakhic Market Controls

Posted in Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Podcasts, Politics, Random Acts of Scholarship. Tagged with , , , , , .

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law Part 1: Free Market Ethics in Torah

Rabbi Josh Yuter begins his special lecture series on Economics and Social Justice in Judaism with an introduction to methodology and a demonstration of a free market ethos existing within the Rabbinic legal tradition. Audio and sources included.

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law Part 1 – Free Market Ethics Sources (PDF)

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law- Free Market Ethics in Judaism

Posted in Economics, Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Podcasts, Politics, Random Acts of Scholarship, Religion, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , , , , , .

Episode 8 – Encountering Avoda Zara

The first Tuesday of every month I lead a Beit Midrash session at the Stanton St. Shul. These topics vary from month to month, often coinciding with the Jewish or secular calendar. This month, I chose to deal with some issues of Avoda Zara due to some questions which kept coming up lately in shul.

This class is by no means comprehensive; covering this topic properly would probably take at least a year. Still the point is to raise certain issues and hopefully lead people to ask better halakhic questions.

Episode 8 – Encountering Avoda Zara

Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Podcasts, Religion, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , , .

Making Sense of YU’s Finances

The Chronicle of Higher Education released its financial report of universities, focusing on compensation packages for university presidents. In this data collected from tax records, The Chronicle found that no fewer than 30 presidents of private universities earned over $1m in total compensation for the 2008-9 fiscal year. In a public article the Chronicle reports that the highest salary went to the late Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander, though due to unusual circumstances:

Nearly four decades after Bernard Lander founded Touro College with a class of 35 students, the trustees decided that he had been underpaid during his tenure as president. To make up for the difference, they awarded him more than $4-million in deferred compensation in 2008.

Mr. Lander, who died in February at age 94, received a total compensation package of $4,786,830, making him the highest-earning private-college president, according to The Chronicle’s review of federal tax documents from the 2008-9 fiscal year. The review, which included 448 chief executives, found 30 private college leaders who received more than $1-million in total compensation. In the previous year’s report, 23 chief executives earned over $1-million. [Emphasis added]

Aside from Lander’s compensation numbers, the other point of interest is the financial state of Yeshiva University. According to The Chronicle’s numbers (available upon registration):

Institution 2008-9 Institution revenues 2008-9 Institution Expenditures Employee 2008-9 Total compensation package
RU/VH Yeshiva University $541,179,646 $722,192,458 Richard M. Joel



First note the “Carnegie classification” field in the table. According to The Chronicle YU’s designation is as follows:

Research Universities
Included among these institutions are those that award at least 20 doctoral degrees per year (excluding doctoral-level degrees that allow recipients to enter professional practice, such as the J.D. or M.D.). Research institutions, which are differentiated based on an explicit measure of their amount of research activity, are divided into three categories: Research universities (very high research activity); Research universities (high research activity); and Doctoral/Research universities.

The Chronicle considers YU to be a “Research University” of “Very High Research Activity.” Thus it is important to consider how YU compares to other institutions in this class, regardless of the accuracy of this designation (i.e. stop laughing).

Furthermore, in the 2008-9 fiscal year, YU ran a deficit of $181,012,812. This number may be misleading due to the Madoff scandal in that funding which was supposed to have come from now depleted endowments would have to be charged directly against revenues.

Finally in considering President Richard Joel’s $1,211,429 compensation (apologies if the number got cut off in the table), it is important to consider the entire package of benefits. In President Joel’s case this would likely include housing, driver, health insurance (non-trivial expense) and other perks which might have previously not been included in the total value.

Also consider how other universities fared during this same year:

Institution Revenue Expenditures Total Net President’s Compensation<
Brandeis University $289,873,136 $338,603,908 -$48,730,772 $830,643
Columbia University $3,088,224,119 $3,285,962,702 -$197,738,583 $1,753,984
Duke University $1,634,274,136 $2,294,516,114 -$660,241,978 $824,755
Harvard University -$2,524,933,646 [sic]1 $3,991,293,191 -$6,516,226,837 $822,011
New York University $2,970,318,554 $3,142,484,709 -$172,166,155 $1,366,878
Princeton University $2,396,611,800 $1,325,636,000 $1,070,975,800 $881,151
Stanford University $2,231,172,246 $3,394,846,813 -$1,163,674,567 $1,091,589
University of Chicago $1,680,383,914 $2,032,554,291 -$352,170,377 $1,162,213
Yale University $2,687,725,962 $2,801,521,857 -$113,795,895 $1,530,008

In making such comparisons, keep in mind the following

  1. Compensation packages are usually contractually defined in advance and not a percentage of a university’s profits.
  2. Responsibilities of the position will vary based on institution, compensation may vary accordingly.
  3. The resources of each university also vary greatly, some presidents have more to work with than others.

1. I don’t know why they listed Harvard as having negative revenues, but I’m just copying/pasting what I found.

Posted in Academia. Tagged with , , , , .

Who’s Selfish Now?

One of the more common critiques of Capitalism is that due to its focus on self-interested incentives that it promotes a selfish society. While there are those who object to this classification, but consider that Ayn Rand herself authored a book titled “The Virtue of Selfishness which would understandably cause some confusion. However, the irony is that in order to compete with “market forces” you actually need to put a greater focus on the “other” in order to sell your product or goods. As I hope to explain, in order to succeed in a capitalistic economy, one must have a greater appreciation for the needs of other people.
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Posted in Economics, Politics. Tagged with , , , , .

RCA Press Release on Israel’s Rotem Conversion Bill

RCA Statement Regarding The Rotem Knesset Legislation Pertaining to Conversions

The Rabbinical Council of America is fully aware of the current significant and broad-ranging communal debate regarding the so-called Rotem legislation in the Israel Knesset, dealing with the charged matter of conversion to Judaism, and Jewish identity in the Jewish State.

There can be no doubt that the State of Israel is the center of Jewish life in our time. Decisions made in the Knesset relating to Jewish status in the State impact on the entire Jewish world. This includes the status of those who have emigrated with family members from other countries, as well as those who may have converted elsewhere prior to emigration.

For this reason the RCA has expended major efforts in recent years to work with Israeli authorities to facilitate acceptance of RCA conversions in Israel. This effort has borne fruit with a significantly expanded number of conversion courts and judges whose converts are fully recognized in the State of Israel. For indeed every rabbinate around the world bears the responsibility to certify or recognize those who come under its jurisdiction, according to its own processes and principles.

And what is true of the rabbinate, is true of the sovereign and democratic State of Israel. North American Jews have long embraced the principle that the duly elected leadership of the State of Israel should not be subject to outside interference or pressure by other governments, religious bodies, or communal entities.

This is especially true when, as happens from time to time, there is no consensus – either among Diaspora Jews, or within the governing political and religious leaderships of Israel. While we have noted certain statements by a number of American Jewish religious and umbrella organizations, as far as we are concerned there is certainly no unanimity, or even consensus, among American Jews on the matter of the current Knesset legislation. It should be noted that the more traditionalist segments of North American Jewry, always in the forefront of support and advocacy for Israel and aliyah, have to our knowledge not been consulted by the North American Jewish Federation leadership.

While the legislation in question may not be perfect, we who live in North America must recognize that it does contain much to commend it. It is important to note that it was proposed and is championed by a secular political party whose constituents are the ones most directly affected by its outcome, and also has wide support among many in the Religious-Zionist camp. Crucially, for the future of the Jewish state, it addresses the existential challenge posed by the presence in Israel of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews who are members of Jewish families. It does so by significantly expanding the number of local rabbinical courts for conversion, so as to facilitate conversion in accordance with the relevant requirements of Jewish law and ethical sensitivity. It also prevents retroactive revocation of conversions by third parties. And not least, it has the support of Israel’s official rabbinate.

The legislation is designed to change nothing regarding North American Jewish issues, a matter which in any event is far less significant to the State of Israel and its citizens than the undoubted benefits that the bill promises. Modifications in the language of the legislation may further alleviate the concerns of the non-traditionalists, but that should be for Israel’s religious and political leadership to decide, without outside pressures or interference. As a Diaspora community we ought all to respect the internal political process that impact first and foremost on those who live within the boundaries of Israel, and only in a derivative fashion on us who have chosen to live in the Diaspora. It ill behooves us to intrude on Israel’s democratic processes, or to threaten, even indirectly or by implication, a lessening of our full and unequivocal support for the State of Israel, if our views do not prevail. It certainly is unacceptable to involve members of the United States Congress, acting in their official capacity as Members of Congress, in lobbying one way or another regarding internal Israeli legislative processes, as some have done.

We thus call on our fellow Jews to respect Israel’s internal political processes, so as to allow Israel and its citizens to make this decision in their own – albeit imperfect, but democratic – fashion, with our unqualified support, our heartfelt prayers, and – whatever the outcome – our undiluted blessing.

Posted in Jewish Culture, Politics.