Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nittal Nacht

It’s that time of year again. I’m not sure what triggers the nostalgia; maybe it’s the winter solstice, short days long nights or perhaps it’s the impending New Year that stimulates morose thoughts. It’s been many decades since I thought about Nittel Nacht or Nittal Nacht, depending on your persuasion, but all this past week I’ve been obsessed with it. Nittel Nacht, a derivative of Latin means Christmas (coincidentally, the Ramah, Harav Moshe Isserles makes reference to it in Shulackan Aruch, Yoreh Dea 148:2 referring to the custom of giving gifts eight days after Nittel Nacht, celebrating the new year). In the Ashkenazi tradition it was referred to as Nittal Nacht, meaning, “taken” in Hebrew, referring to the “one” who was taken, arrested, and crucified (although this makes more sense in connection to Easter). Others believe that it refers back to the Hebrew word “nitleh” hanged, perhaps referring as well to being crucified.

Regardless of how one understands the etymology of the word what remains for those coming out of the yeshiva world is that December 24th-25th isn’t Christmas but Nittal Nacht. Ashkenazim weren’t united on how one should mark Nittal Nacht. Many chassidic Jews were predisposed not to study at all on Nittal Nacht but to be very vigilant of Christian intent to harm Jews. Exponents of the Lithuanian Yeshivot studied with vigor. Other quarters felt that it was important to recess from noon till midnight in order to deny Jesus the merit of Torah study on his birthday. Rabbi Nathan Adler of Frankfort saw it as a day of mourning for all the suffering and persecutions of the Jews by the Christians, to be treated like Tisha B’Av with a prohibition of learning Torah. His student, the Chasam Sofer, suggested that it was important to begin learning again after midnight to counterbalance the devout Christians who attended midnight mass. By the nineteenth century there were indeed practical reasons to continue this custom of closing the yeshivos – pichuach nefesh.

Hypothetically, if any of this made sense I would think that this last reason suggested made the most sense. As a Jew you never knew what to expect on Nittal Nacht. Sometimes it was a pogrom, other times it was blood libel accusations. Rarely did a Jew come away from Christmas untouched. It was never the happy time of year that Andy Williams or Bing Crosby sang about in their endearing Christmas tunes. I can only imagine the anxiety of our ancestors building up as the winter set in. Apart from dealing with the cold winter, illness, lack of medicine and sometimes food, there was one additional worry. Would there be a pogrom, when would it start, from what direction would it come, and how bad would it be. Chanukah couldn’t have been that festive, knowing that just around the corner was Christmas with the inevitable suffering. Imagine spinning the draidele, trying to infuse a little joy in your children’s life wondering when the pogrom would hit and who would survive. Very sobering.

But unlike the Christmas of my ancestors, in America it is, as the song goes “a very special time of year”. Party time and good cheer. The Christmas spirit, streets and homes lit up and stores buzzing with shoppers. Those are my memories of Christmas in America. Perhaps, I should feel guilty, but I’m don’t. I’m aware of our suffering especially around the Yultide, but I didn’t suffer, nor did my parents or even grandparents. Nevertheless I feel conflicted because although my immediate descendants didn’t suffer my people suffered

As it turns out, and to the credit of my yeshiva which had a Lithuanian / brisker orientation there was a slightly reduced seder on Christmas eve to make note of Nittal Nacht, but not enough to totally disrupt the seder in the beis medrash. As I said it was to the credit of the yeshiva because unwittingly they fed into my own conflicting feelings about the day. On the one hand bad stuff happened; on the other hand bad stuff doesn’t happen any more – thank god! Disturbing however, are those institutions that observe the customs / traditions of Nittal Nacht which today strike me as slightly pathological. They are basically arguing that by their own denial of study on Christmas Eve they are dismissing another faith as irrelevant. More disturbing than that however are all those young people today who never heard of Nittal Nacht.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Haredi Kulturkampf

The postmodern world is really causing havoc in the haredi community. That you all know and appreciate: but rarely can we see a manifestation of this so obvious, so crystal clear. On December 7th 2009 posters (pashkevels) went up all over haredi Jerusalem asking for information on any yeshiva students that may be connected to the Internet for fear of a “toeva”. The posters are signed by the “Committee for Preserving Our Camps Purity”, (a division of the “modesty squad”, who last year was responsible for beating to a pulp someone who didn’t adhere to their modesty standards). Many of the leading “gedolim” in the mainstream haredi community are also against the use of the Internet because of the uncensored information coming through the information highway. Just recently the Belzer Rebbe and Rav Ovadiah Yoseph in separate announcements prohibited the use of the Internet.

What makes this uniquely intriguing is a Vaad Harabbanim advertisement currently running (December 2009) on the Internet that reads:

“World renown Rabbis, including Maran Harav Hagaon Yosef Shalom Elyashiv shlita, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita…. and Rav Ovadia Yosef, shlita…all donate their time to Vaad Harabanim assuring that Israel’s most desperate are taken care of….”

The Ad then goes on to invite those interested to call a toll free number or to visit them at or to email them at Obviously it’s ok for them to use the Internet.

What is particularly striking is the temerity of these “gedolim” on the one hand to publicly acknowledge their use of the Internet as it suits them while at the same time suppressing the use of the same technology by their adherents. But wait! The audacity doesn’t stop here! On erev Chanukah (December 11) a kol korei appeared in the newspapers backed by the gedolei hador exhorting their followers not to use even the haredi Internet sites because its content is inappropriate, being filled with “lies and abominations”. This past December 17, 2009, Hamevasser reported that there has been continued reaction to the kol korei, citing the additional kol korei of HaRav Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss warning of the perils of the Internet. As a result on December 18, 2009, a few “kosher” sites shut down with the negative impact on employees as YWN confirmed:

“This was a terrible thing that happened - I respect the rabbis and their wisdom, but there should have been some warning...On Thursday, I and 30 some co-workers at "Etrog" lost our jobs. Overnight, we have no means of income, and will join the ranks of the "poor chareidim". I am sure employees of other sites are facing the same reality.

We had a vision of providing a kosher site for anyone who happened to be online anyway - that is all over now.

I wonder what will happen to all the yeshivos, chessed organizations, and even chareidi publications that have websites. This decision is meant to protect our souls, but is seriously harming our livelihood. The Internet helped unify and unite the worldwide Jewish community - now we will once again be left to fend for ourselves, in our own locales. Cut off from the rest of the world, cut off from each other. And in my case, at the mercy of the chessed organization in my community, that will now have to help us put food on the table until I find another job.


Again, I am not criticizing the gedolei hador. I am just trying to understand what alternative they have in mind for us. Chareidi people everywhere are learning professionals that require Internet use. Will that be banned too? Where will the cut-off be?

I am glad this site (YWN) is still here, so I can share my thoughts.”

What we have here is a mini kulturkampf prompted perhaps by the weekly Shabbat demonstrations, the latest which was against Intel. They’re loosing the fight and their frustration is projected through the pashkevels, and kol koreis that are nothing more than face saving maneuvers. Beyond that, however, is the mixed message of the haredi leadership who still, in spite of the kol koreis insist on using the Internet when it serves their purpose.

Their use of the Internet suggests, however, an acknowledgement that it is really impossible, whether we like it or not to conduct business or educational programs without the use of this technology; while at the same time revealing arrogance that sorely weakens their case against use of the Internet.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Over the Top

It’s one thing to enter into a relationship with our Christian neighbors for the purpose of political support on important Jewish agenda items like the State of Israel, but it is another thing to pander to their charitable side by degrading the Jewish community. This is what appears to be happening on an infomercial-aired daily, morning and evening on cable TV sponsored by the International Federation of Christians and Jews, starring Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and non talking parts by elderly people portrayed as babushka wearing bobies and toothless zaidies.

The International Federation of Christian and Jews founded by and presided over by Rabbi Yichiel Eckstein has been a controversial organization from its inception. The organization hasn’t been that well received by the Jewish communities in America or Israel. This is certainly true for the haredi and the right wing contingency of the modern orthodox community. Going back several generations the right wing orthodox community forbade any theological discussions to take place with the Christian community. Apart from the theological issue there is also the emotional component that so much of the Jewish community is sensitive to. It isn’t easy to forget the suffering of the Jewish communities of Europe at he hand of Christians sanctioned by their clergy. Nor do we forget the unrelenting efforts at missionary work, even today, of some evangelical groups. So it is totally understandable why the right wing orthodox community has a difficult time dealing with the Christian community. That coupled with halachic decisions by torah scholars to prohibit this kind of interaction is enough to dismiss this organization even if Eckstein’s intentions were “l’shem shamayim”.

We Jews are ambivalent and have a hard time sitting down with Christians, considering that our history with them has not been sterling. Among the left wing of the orthodox community Eckstein’s organization was mildly distasteful and certainly controversial. In line with the theory that the modern orthodox community is determined to connect with the world outside it would stand to reason that they would entertain the idea of not only tolerating but embracing the work of organizations that fosters the understanding of each other as well as support an organization that is totally behind Israel. However, having seen the infomercial I’m beginning to understand the sentiments expressed in a daf yomi shiur a few years ago.

Until I saw this infomercial aired ad nausea, I too was ambivalent about the organization, but was inclined to give Eckstein a pass. Being acquainted with Rabbi Eckstein, a committed Zionist and a devoted Jew I was convinced that he wouldn’t have a hand in any organization that wasn’t completely righteous. That is, until I had the misfortune of viewing the IFCJ infomercial where he had the staring role.

The infomercial is not only degrading to those Jews who are suffering in Russia but demeans the entire charitable enterprise of the Jewish People. The subliminal message of the infomercial is since the Jewish community can’t and won’t take care of our own he has to turn to Bible belt Christians in TV land and appeal to their Christian conscience. “It is the festival of lights”, so goes the text of the infomercial, “and its time that light be brought to these neglected holocaust survivors”. He couldn’t resist using the holocaust card. A cheap shot! What a slap in the face it is to all the sacred work done throughout the Jewish communities of the United States, Europe and Israel in creating the programs whereby relief is available to all who wish to take advantage of those resources. Simply outrageous!

What is equally disturbing is the fact that apparently there are still poor and suffering Jews in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. One of JDC’s missions has been and is, to provide aid with dignity, to our unfortunate kinsmen. Perhaps the JDC and other Jewish charitable organizations aren’t doing enough. Apparently the IFCJ sensing the weak link took advantage of the situation. The portrayal of the needy Jews in the infomercial was humiliating, embarrassing and shameful to say the least. The message is clear: we have to take care of our own; we have to do more; and we have to do better.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Reform Judaism – American Style

In the December 4th issue of the Forward, Jacob Neusner wrote an interesting piece on his journey from classical reform Judaism to conservative Judaism and then back to Reform Judaism. Usually I enjoy Neusner’s articles because they are well thought out, cerebral yet understated and with sophisticated humor. This piece however was somewhat different and my reaction to it was viscerally negative.

My acceptance of all formats and approaches to Jewish practice has no limits (although I reject Jewish practice as defined by denominational [Reform, Conservative & Orhtodox] affiliation). I have said many times that there are multiple portals into Jewish practice as well as an equal number of egresses out of Judaism as well. Judaism, in our tradition is a large tent where all are invited in, as Abraham demonstrated early on in his own journey of religious discovery. Our tradition confirmed this much later when the Passover Seder was formalized and with the incorporation of text that would certainly suggest the welcoming of all kinds of Jewish belief as attested to by the reading of the kol dichfin (kol dichfin yasei uyachal kol ditztrich yasei vifsach).

Neusner presents several arguments why he moved from Reform to Conservative and then back to Reform. It would appear that his preeminent argument is that Reform Judaism is uniquely American saying that “if Reform Judaism didn’t exist today, American Jews would have to invent it”. He got that wrong from a factual point of view. Conservative Judaism is a purely American experiment (failing) and Reform Judaism was an exponent of the “German Jew” attempting to emulate the Protestant German culture. He goes on to say that the proof is in the pudding: the demographic preeminence can be explained by its wide appeal and relevancy. The error in Neusner’s reasoning goes to the core of what he believes Judaism to be.

According to Neusner and many others like him Judaism is a religion. Ironically, it was the Reform movement in Germany that successfully reformulated and redefined Judaism from a comprehensive culture encompassing religious practice to a religion exclusively. It was their way of gaining acceptance and entry in to German society. Judaism was never a religion, but seen and understood as a great culture in exile with a rich history and tradition. So for him to say “I affirm Reform Judaism as the American Judaism” sounds as though he is seeking a Jewish answer to American Protestantism.

The Jewish world according to Neusner is divided between segregationist and integrationists. I couldn’t agree more as I have written on many occasions and most recently in my last essay on November 30, 2009, A Sate of Mind. However that is no argument for Reform Judaism or any movement for that matter. Being an integrationist and an involved and committed Jew are not mutually exclusive. There are many successfully integrated Orthodox Jews as well as Conservative Jews who could certainly be seen as integrationists.

Neusner’s Jewish worldview flawed as it is, erroneously is an attempt at bolstering his movement by suggesting three planks (Why is it that programmatic suggestions seems to always come in threes, like the three legged stool that Obama often times refers to when explaining the way to rebuild the economy or a country). The third plank affirms the tradition of individualism, validating the individual conscience, which syncs well with his second plank that halacha should be a voice but not a veto (when was it anything else in Reform Judaism?) as he suggests “I was brought up to affirm what I found personally meaningful and to dismiss as irrelevant what did not fit”. This strikes me as though he sees his Judaism as nothing more than silly putty: fun to play with, but when it ossifies and no longer does what you want it to do, it is abandoned. Somehow it seems too chaotic, too convenient, too American. In that sense he is right. Reform Judaism is an American expression. It reflects the American culture, a disposable culture. When something is no longer useful or relevant dismiss it. It’s something like the sprawling American suburb, where Reform Judaism is so comfortable; with single use buildings put up overnight and dismantled when they have outlived their use. Reform Judaism-American Style.