Category: Culture

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

Yeshiva University’s Social Rankings

It seems like ages ago, but we once discussed college rankings, and how YU fared much more poorly by standards other than those used by US News.
On that note, Washington Monthly has a new ranking system aimed at determining the educational value of the universities, a metric which is unfortunately overlooked in choosing a college and nearly impossible to define based on most ranking systems.

But what’s missing from all the rankings is the equivalent of a bottom line. There are no widely available measures of how much learning occurs inside the classroom, or of how much students benefit from their education. This makes the process of selecting a college a bit like throwing darts at a stock table. It also means that colleges and universities, like our imaginary mutual-fund managers, feel little pressure to ensure that students learn. As anyone who’s ever snoozed through a giant freshman psychology 101 lecture knows, sitting in a classroom doesn’t equal learning; knowledge doesn’t come by osmosis.

Although there are tests out there to help guage students’ collegiate academic progress (CLA, NSSE), most universities apparently keep their results to themselves. So, WM devised their own system which focuses on the university’s social impact.

And so, to put The Washington Monthly College Rankings together, we started with a different assumption about what constitutes the “best” schools. We asked ourselves: What are reasonable indicators of how much a school is benefiting the country? We came up with three: how well it performs as an engine of social mobility (ideally helping the poor to get rich rather than the very rich to get very, very rich), how well it does in fostering scientific and humanistic research, and how well it promotes an ethic of service to country. We then devised a way to measure and quantify these criteria.

How does YU measure up? Despite ranking 45 in US News’ survey, YU weighs in at an embarrassing 200 of 245 schools.
In fairness, WM’s methodology took military and peace corps service into consideration, neither of which are areas which are conducive to perpetuating an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. Furthermore, many YU students do in fact enter communal service, bet it as teachers, social workers, psychologists, and the occasional Rabbi. However since these professions serve a relatively small and exclusive community, these contributions would likely be overlooked.
Still, it might be nice for Yeshiva University to look beyond the 4 cubits of the Jewish world. Although there have been notable exceptions, most students I’ve known are either not interested or ideologically opposed to contributing to the non-Jewish world. We’ve covered some of the drawbacks of taking federal funding, and it might be a nice idea to contribute something to the society at large. Not only would probably help in kiddush hashem and tikkun olam departments, but it may also have other significant religious benefits.

Enjoy The Silence

In what is not considered to be a blasphemous rumor, Depeche Mode cancelled their upcoming Israeli concert. Either the tech crew just had enough of the dangerous situation or it’s some form of condemnation, but cancellations such as these are becoming a pain that Israel is used to.
All right, I’m done now.

Dishing Commentary

Work just sent out an e-mail informing us that one of our employee perks is a 15% discount on Michael C. Fina. I don’t anticipate taking advantage of this benefit in the near future, but I did poke around their website to see what’s actually being sold and just how expensive everything is.
I got distracted by the following product description:

Vera Wang’s dinnerware collection is inspired by the contemporary bride. Dishwasher safe, it is meant to be used every day.

I just found the juxtaposition of “contemporary bride” and “dishwasher safe” to be particularly amusing.

How To Effectively Respond To Missionaries

Most New Yorkers, especially subway commuters, have had experience with random and often comical street preachers. Most are harmless. If you’re on the street you can act like the New Yorker and ignore them like you do everyone else, and if you’re on the subway they tend to change cars or trains after one stop.1
Recently Jews For Jesus has stepped up a missionizing campaign in New York. Unlike the typical street preachers who minister to whomever happens to listen, Jews For Jesus actively tries to proselytize individuals with direct confrontation.

These confrontations can be very uncomfortable for most Jews. Few are well versed enough to respond to the challenges,2 and even those who are competent in the sources might not have the personality or debating skills to have an effective argument.

Ideally, I would suggest that when confronted the best response would be to walk away,3 however this is not always possible. So as a public service and in the interests of “know how to respond to heretics” (Avot 2:17) I’d like to offer my suggestions as a brief guide to handling the overly aggressive missionaries.

One More Jewish Mayor

SIW is reporting on Orthodox mayors and not surprisingly, good ‘ol Springfield, NJ gets overlooked once again. Not only have we had an Orthodox mayor in Clara Harelik, but a female Orthodox mayor who has served several terms1 and recently won the Mayor of the Year award for Union County.
Who knew Springfield could be so progressive?

1. For some wacky reasoning you don’t vote for mayors directly in Springfield, but for a five-member Township Committee who selects the mayor from among themselves.

Two-Way Tolerance

It’s not surprising that as we approach the GLBT World Pride in Jerusalem (August 6-12), we find increasingly critical and hostile rhetoric against the event. Jerusalem is no stranger to religious controversies, and the opposition to homosexuality is nearly universal among the major religions.
My understanding is that there are two major goals of the Pride events. The first is to provide support and encouragement for the GLBT community internally, and the second is to promote tolerance and acceptance. (Yes, I know this is an oversimplification). From the World Pride mission statement:

It is time to demonstrate to our community, to our neighbors and peers and indeed to the world, not only that we belong, but that our love and our pride can cross the harshest borders that divide people.

However, with the peaceful calls for love, pride, and belonging is an understated antagonism towards those religions which reject the GLBT community. There is no coincidence that the first World Pride event in 2000 took place in Rome with the intent to take their message “to the Pope’s doorstep.” Given all the locations worldwide where the native culture is more hospitable to the GLBT community, the initial choice of Rome and subsequent selection of Jerusalem is just as much a statement as the event itself. As the mission statement proclaims,

“In these times of intolerance and suspicion, from the home of three of the world’s great religions, we will proclaim that love knows no borders.” [emphasis added]

World Pride is not simply a matter of communal bonding or promoting tolerance, but a subliminal protest against intolerant religions. There is of course an intelligent strategy at work here. By assuming a greater challenge, the GLBT community can more effectively galvanize itself by breaking another barrier (if peaceful) or standing strong in the face of opposition.
But consider some of the stated themes of the upcoming World Pride:

  • Our values are guided by tolerance, equality and pluralism.
  • The parade in Jerusalem is conformed to the city’s nature in respect toward the local orthodox populations.
  • The pride events bring a new inner-faith message of equality and tolerance.
  • Obeying the law and avoiding violence and harsh criticism are some of our messages.

Given the underlying attitude towards religion, these statements are disingenuous at best. If the values are guided by tolerance, then a better location should have been selected. The parade obviously does not conform in respect to the Orthodox populations as evidenced by the vehement opposition. And if the theme is truly to avoid harsh criticism (unclear if it refers to giving or receiving) then why select such a volatile location?

My issue here is not questioning the right to assemble or even the right to protest GLBT’s treatment in the major religions. But I personally find it hypocritical to do so under the banner of tolerance. The choices of Rome and Jerusalem seems to be an “in your face” approach almost daring people to pick a fight. If the message is really about tolerance, then this strategy is counter-productive since the parade will most likely breed even more resentment.

I do think there can be a compromise between religion and the GLBT community, and I offered my own suggestions to that effect. But as I argued regarding pluralism, tolerance does not mean that other people must unilaterally accept you on your terms. There first has to be mutual acknowledgement and respect of each other’s beliefs and perspectives, and this would have to entail avoiding obviously antagonistic actions.

If one requests tolerance, one must be willing to give it as well.

Petal Pushing

I’ve gotten several comments about the new image which adorns the entry headings. The image is called a “Fleur-de-lis” which translates to “lily flower.”1 Over the centuries it has adopted several meanings, many of which are related Christianity. However, there are other non-religious uses as well, some more applicable than others. From the Wiki article (which is a fun read):

  • Whatever its origin, it is an ancient design which has been found in various cultures, usually as an emblem associated with royalty.
  • By the 13th and 14th centuries, the three petals of the lily of France were being described by writers as symbols of faith, wisdom and chivalry.
  • The fleur-de-lis is the major element in the logo of most Scouting organizations. In that usage, it is considered to represent the outdoors, which is a major theme in Scouting.
  • The Fleur-de-lys is used in (on top of) the compass rose in combination with flights and boats as a maneuver/measure symbol pointing up to the north.

Honestly, it’s only there because it was part of the template and I thought it looked nice. If you’ve got a better icon, I’m willing to reconsider.

1. Which I suppose would make it’s function here a “lilly pad.”

R. Aharon Lichtenstein On Talmud Criticism

SIW links to a post and comment at Hirhurim on R. Herschel Schachter’s take on Talmud criticism.

Since my M.A. is in Talmud from Revel and I studied mehqar under the tutelage of Dr. Yaakov Elman, you could imagine where I stand on the issue.1 But when I was in Gruss, I had the opportunity at one of the open “press conferences” to ask R. Aharon Lichtenstein what he felt about academic Talmud study. I expected R. Aharon to have an interesting take considering that one of his sons is heavily involved in mehqar and that academic Talmud is directly at odds with the brisker derech2

Now the thing about these press conferences is that people tend to ask horrible questions. Either they’re intentionally vague or they’re trying to bait R. Aharon into saying something which agrees with them. For example, a common question is “what does the Rosh Yeshiva think about X.” Since R. Aharon answers the question precisely as asked, he will tend to expound philosophically, wax poetic, and generally lose his audience by going well over their heads.

So instead of asking the open ended “what do you think about Talmud criticism?” I asked “What do you like/approve or dislike/disapprove about academic Talmud?” Unfortunately I no longer have the transcript of his response. However I can report that in a nutshell he approved of the methodology i.e. the use of manuscripts and stylistic analysis of the Talmudic texts, but disapproved of the attitude of treating the Talmud as an “academic” subject. Meaning, the tools employed are fine, but Talmud study is not the same and should not be treated like English literature.

In terms of the practical consequences of academic Talmud, I remember him citing Whitehead in distinguishing between “Facts” and “Truth.” I did not have the opportunity to follow up with a discussion as to what that meant, but I don’t think I would have agreed with the answer.

1. An irrelevant but cute line by R. Dov Linzer on Talmud criticism: “What are they going to do, tell me it had multiple authors?”
2. Or as one professor explained, “Brisk works if you accept its premises and ignore all contradictory data.”