Internal Contradictions

Imagine this scenario:

You are person that keeps kosher, strictly. You join a volunteer organization which ships you out to various developing countries to help build up their community. When you get to the particular village that you will be living and working in, you are greeted by the entire village. They have thrown you a welcome party, complete with a roasted goat. This goat is one of only 10 goats they have in the village, but the slaughtered it to honor your arrival. They give you a plate, and ask that you take the first bite. What do you do?

My first reaction was that I would have to give up my kashrut standards for the sake of cultural sensitivity.

My friend, who is joining the Peace Corps and was asked this question on her interview, responded by saying she would first thank them for hosting the party, say how honored she was by all this, thank them for their generosity, and explain to them that just as they have things they do as part of their worship of God, she too has things she does for God, one of which is not eating goats, and to ask the village to please enjoy the goat for her.

I was ashamed that I didn’t react that way. I WISH that religion was more important to me. I wish I could be more steadfast in my attachment to observance. But then, there’s this post, which I still agree with. I would not, and would not WANT to, sacrifice my child if God told me to. I would not commit murder, rape, or assault simply for the sake of religious fervor.

I have always felt that my external moral beliefs (which may very well have been shaped by my religious beliefs) will always trump my religious beliefs. I don’t WANT that to change.

And now I am confused. Why do I feel bad that I would put my cultural sensitivity in front of my religious behavior if that is, after all, how I want to live my life? Is kashrut an external moral belief? I don’t think so. Why, then, is it so important to me?

Eruv or Neighbors?

The UMD eruv is down this week.

This, after much discussion on moral vs. halachic values.

Every thursday, during the day, a group of students from the Eruv Committee drive around the entire eruv (it’s about 8 miles in circumference) to make sure that each of the posts are there. (For more information about the UMD eruv or eruv in general, click here.) Then, at night, other members of the community randomly check about 5 posts a week, in order to make sure that the posts line up with the wire that connects them all. These posts are 10 tefachim high, about 3 feet, and the wires are the electrical wires high up above the ground. We use a laser to make sure that the wires and posts are alligned, and therefore, we have to check at night.

Last night we were doing the rounds about 10:30 at night. At the last post, there was a major problem. A signifigant portion of the lechi [post] was missing, and therefore, it was nowhere near alligned. We had our kit of duck tape, poles, wooden beams, and nails with us, and went to work trying to fix the eruv.

About 15 minutes into the project, the woman who lived in the house behind this pole came out and asked what we were doing. This is not unusual, as we get this question a lot during our rounds. One of our members explained briefly what it was, but this didn’t satisfy the woman. She didn’t care what we were doing, she just (understandably) wanted us gone because we were a group of students standing outside her house in the middle of the night with scary construction equipment, and we were keeping her kids up.

We told her that we’d try to be quieter, and that we should be finished in a few minutes. We whispered, but 15 minutes later, she came out again. We asked if we were being too loud, and she said, “No, that’s not it. My son’s bedroom is that window up there, and he is nervous that you are here at all. He won’t go to sleep until you all are gone. You see, we are Muslim, and the last time we had people outside our house like this was when a group of people were trying to break into our house soon after Sept. 11th. Please, for my children’s sake, do this some other time.”

We hurriedly tried to fix the lechi, and left it in a VERY haphazard state. It was kosher, but it was extremely temporary. It was also pretty scary looking, a pole sticking out from the telephone post wrapped all around with duck tape. Because of the alignment thing, it had to stick out about 8 inches, which didn’t add to the effect.

We left, and it was kosher. No problem. However, we felt horrible about keeping that woman and her children up. We decided that the friendly, communally-responsible thing to do would be to bring the lady and her family a box of chocolates and write her a letter of apology. However, one of the senior members of the eruv committee brought up the point that if we go back there, we’d very likely find that the temporary lechi that we had put up was down. We wouldn’t be able to fix the eruv if it was broken, since that has to be done at night. We were now in a moral quandry. We could leave the area as is, assume kosher status, and risk making a chillul hashem to the neighbors. Or, we could go back to the woman, make ammends, and then declare the eruv down if we noticed it.

To me, the issue was clear. Our community would just have to go one week without an eruv. Sure, some people would carry their keys any way, but wouldn’t it be better that they are mechalel shabbos beshogeg (unintentionally) than for us to create bad feelings in the community?

Surprisingly, about half the committee didn’t feel that way. Their reasoning was that if we declare it down, 200 people would be breaking shabbos. They wouldn’t get the message in time, or they would ignore it, etc.

I just don’t understand this. It seems to be another symptom of the Jewish elitism problem- “All that matters is our needs”-and such other statements. Really, you’d ignore the fears of a person that already has experianced religous bigotry and racism just so you can carry your keys? That just doesn’t seem right to me.

Dead Man Walking?

Way back in the day I used to be adamantly against the death penalty. It’s just too uncertain, it dosen’t deter crime any more than life without parole does, it doesn’t protect society anymore than life without parole does, and it certainly dosen’t do anything to help rehabilitate the offenders.

I still sort of feel that way.

However, I’ve started working with Criminal Justice research organizations, and I’ve realized there is a really big incentive for the death penalty. This, of course, is the financial incentive. It costs a heck of a lot less to kill someone than it does to build prisions for them, provide food and clothing for them, and to pay gaurds to watch them.

Now, if that were the only factor, it would still seem to be pretty clear cut. Taxpayers should pay the price for a better society. (This is the liberal in me fighting to see some daylight). Still, there is one more factor that needs to be added in to the equation.

This is the war on drugs. There are those amongst us that advocate in legalizing certain non-life threatening drugs, such as marijuana, to alleviate this war. On the other side, there are those that oppose this, saying it’s the same as a mid-war immediate pullout. Both sides, however, acknowledge that we are fighting an expensive battle which we seem to be losing.

Through my work with sentencing policy, I’ve noticed something interesting. My state sets guidelines for various crimes, depending on the severity of the offense and the history of the offender. Judges don’t have to listen to these guidelines, but they have to provide a reason if they deviate from them.

The problem is, all too often, judges will issue rulings like “10 years in state prison, suspended”. This means, basically, the 10 years goes on the offenders permanent record, and into the statistical information, but the offender actually doesn’t serve any time.

One time, I saw a judge issue a ruling (I think it was for 3 years), with the caveat “beginning when space opens up at jailhouse X”. Lack of space in prisons is a huge problem, and judges work with it by suspending the sentences of their less violent offenders, usually those convicted of drug possession or distribution. I have not yet come across any case where someone was convicted of possession that actually served ANY time. It’s ridiculous. Originally, I blamed the judges, saying they weren’t being hard enough on drug crimes. It’s only been recently that I started to think maybe it’s not just them. Maybe they are just doing the best possible job they can do when prisons are literally filled to capacity.

Ideally, yes, more prisons should be built to solve the space problem. Would it cost tax money? Most definitely yes. Short of that, however, may leave the need to keep criminals out of prison in a different way-a systematic genocide of the most hardened criminals that don’t really stand a chance of getting released any way. But I just can’t advocate for that.

Practical Halacha for Pluaralists

I was invited to eat at a friend’s apartment last Friday night. I have been really busy lately, and haven’t been around much, but this weekend I happened to be free. I had not seen this particular friend, and really wanted to spend some much needed time catching up with her.

However, there were few potential problems with this meal:

1. While they consider themselves “kosher”, she and the rest of her apartment mates actually keep “kosher style”, in which they do not check for hechserim, but will not eat any non-kosher meat, will not eat anything that mixes meat and milk (though they will eat non-hechshered cheese-apparently the mixing of renerts with curd isn’t enough basar v’chalav for them), and will avoid any products with xanthan gum listed in the ingredients.

2. Both the door to enter her building and the door to enter her apartment require a electronic swipe card.

3. She lives on the 10th floor of her building

4. She is what I call “Zachor Shabbat”. While she does keep Shabbat as a day of rest, she will occasionally do things that Shomer Shabbat Jews will avoid, such as turning off and on lights, and turning off and on ovens.

I wanted to eat with her, and I did not want to do anything not acceptable by Orthodox Jewish halacha.

Some would suggest avoiding the situation all together. One friend said, “This is why alot of people have the custom not to eat anything cooked by people who are non-Shomer Shabbat.” It’s just not worth it, they’d say. You never know what could happen. A million things could go wrong in a situation like that. Someone who doesn’t follow the halacha isn’t going to be as careful as someone who does.

First off, that last statement is just not true. I’ve seen plenty of “Orthodox”, “Observant” people who “accidentally” flip on lights that they forgot to set before Shabbat, or pick out all the tomatoes from their salad because, well, tomatoes taste slimey and they just get in the way. It’s not that all Orthodox people aren’t careful, it’s just that Orthodoxy does not by definition include careful attention to all details of halacha as part of it’s mission statement of sorts. And many times, it’s the non observant people that will go above and beyond the call of “hostess duty” in order to make their guests feel more comfortable.

Let me share what happened in this particular case:

She asked me to take her shopping a few days before Shabbat. Because I was with her, I could say things like “Does your salad dressing at home have a hechsher on it?” She wanted to do everything she could in order to make me comfortable eating at her home, and she was aware that our standards of kashrut are different. I never put it as “I keep kosher and you don’t”, though in my mind I regard her apartment as non-kosher, but I say “you and I have different standards of kashrut.” Not once has she gotten offended by this. (She and I are close enough that she would tell me, or at least I’d be able to tell by her facial rections.)

I asked her if I could come over Thursday night to help her cook. In this, I accomplished two goals. First off, I got to spend some quality time with her, while also reducing the amount of time needed to actually cook the meal. Second, I could serve as the unofficial mashgiach. She had already agreed to cook things in disposable pans covered with two layers of foil, and when she needed to cook meatballs in a pot, I told her she could borrow one from me.

Actually getting into her apartment required some thought. One of her roomates was not planning on going to services, so we asked her if she wouldn’t mind staying in the apartment until we got there, and therefore she could let us in the door.

Getting into the building was a little trickier. We waited until other people went into the building, and followed behind them. The biggest problem was getting up the 10 flights. I didn’t mind walking the steps (and as it turned out, neither did 6 out of the 10 others who were with me), but the door to the steps is locked at the first floor, for security purposes. So, my friend told me what she was going to do was go up in the elevator and come down and open the door for us. I wasn’t a hundred percent comfortable with that, until someone pointed out that we are in no way asking her to do melacha. She has to go up to her apartment anyway. Now, she could leave her apartment, walk down the stairs, open the door for us, and then walk back up the stairs with us. Or she, of her own free will, can take whatever combination of elevator and stairs she wanted. Turns out, she took the elevator to the second floor, walked down to the first floor, and then walked back up with us to the tenth. It was an experience.

My point in telling over this whole story is that I could have just said, “No, thank you. It sounds great but I’ll be unable to come.” But instead, I chose to make it work. In regards to Michael Broyde, I’d like to say that, with all due respect, you’re wrong. Orthodoxy can in fact be supportive of and encourage pluralism. It’s what makes this religion great.

Maturity and Halacha

“Any man who is under 30 and is not a liberal has no heart; any man who is over 30 and is not a conservative has no brains.”

-Winston Churchill (or not)

Many young people, in the context of college, yeshivah, or seminary, like to spend their time discussing issues of policy. Specifically, in the Orthodox Jewish world, issues pertaining to halacha. During the year that I spent in Israel, I had many such conversations with peers about issues as the kashrut status of Rabanut Yerushalayim, saying hallel on Yom HaAtzmaut, and the role of kiruv within the Jewish community. We also discussed things like tzniut and mandatory army service in Israel.

It’s funny how as a 17 year old teenager, I could be SO convinced that my position was right. Most of my opinions haven’t changed objectively since then, but this past weekend, I had an enlightening experience.

I spent shabbos with a family that I respect a lot. I had never actually met them before, but they are the cousins of a close friend of mine. This close friend and I wanted to spend shabbos together, and she asked her cousins to host. It was the type of place that, after being there for only a couple of hours, I felt like I’d known them my entire life. They told me to make myself at home, and I did. The wife and I spent the entire weekend joking around, as if we were old friends. I teased the 14 year old cousin as if he was my own little brother. I spoke with their 16 year old about various options for college (His school starts having college guidance meetings in 10th grade? What??)

The wife is an attorney at a fancy law firm in New York City. She covers her hair outside of her home, but not when she’s at work. That’s when it hit me. I have dreams of going to law school and working a large firm like hers. I never for a minute have doubted whether or not I would cover my hair. Of course I would. The question was always, how? I don’t really like the idea of sheitels. What’s the point of covering hair with hair?
“It’s a way for women to follow halacha, while at the same time feeling comfortable with their appearances” always seemed like a weak argument for me. In Israel, I decided that I would only cover my hair with hats or scarves-a blatant declaration of my status as an Orthodox, married woman.

I started thinking about her situation, and how odd it was that she didn’t cover her hair at work. Then I thought, what will I do in that situation? Wear a hat, like the 60 year old southern ladies going out for tea? Wear a scarf, like a twenty-something teenage wannabe? I couldn’t think of a single option that would be appropriate in a business environment, with the exception of a sheitel, which, of course, the 17 year old me had decided was inappropriate.

Later on, the issue of national army service came up. Of COURSE boys who don’t want to go to Yeshiva should serve in the army, right? Sure, in theory. But Israel is in the middle of a WAR!! Going to the army means signing up for war. Can I really handle that? Do I want to place my children in a position that forces them to be in life threatening situations? No, not really. No amount of Zionism is going to change that. Land can’t bring back a dead child.

Maybe the year in Israel is for exactly this purpose. Maybe the flipping out is a good thing. Even if people don’t end up sticking with all the changes they make in Israel, they will be able to separate the things they do/don’t do because of halachic ideals from the those that they do/don’t do because of personal comfort. And that’s an important distinction.

With Streets Paved in Gold

Every summer since I was about 12 years old, I’ve worked in my father’s check cashing store. For those of you who don’t know how check cashing works, it’s basically banking for transient workers. Many times people receive checks, but do not have bank accounts to deposit the checks into. Other times, the banks hold the checks for somewhere between 7-14 days to verify it before dispensing funds, but the worker can’t wait a couple of weeks to get his money. That’s where check cashers come in. The workers bring their checks to the establishment, we verify that the check is legit-a process that some how takes us several minutes, yet takes banks several weeks-and give them the money, minus a small fee. Then, the check casher deposits the check into their own bank account.

I generally work in the verification department. I’ve learned a lot about check fraud from it, too. When the movie Catch Me if You Can came out, I wasn’t so surprised to see what he pulled off, as I had seen or heard about many of those schemes before. One extremely popular form of check fraud is for someone outside of America to send some sort of email explaining how they have unfortunately come into a difficult situation. They own a business in their home country that deals with international clients, and the clients send them checks that can only be deposited in the United States of America. These “business owners” propose that they will send the check to to this contact person, the contact person will cash the check and then wire the money to the business owner in the foreign country, keeping, of course, a small percentage for their troubles. It seems like a win-win situation to the unsuspecting contact person.

The problem is, of course, these checks are complete forgeries. Most check cashers can spot them right away, but apparently, there are still a few that can’t (or don’t). When the check is denied, its up to the one who cashed it to pay back the check, plus a fine, plus serve jail time if the police are called. The one who cashed it, however, doesn’t have the money anymore, as they have already wired it out of the country.

There is an older woman who works in my office, and when discussing this situation, she says, “It’s such a shame that these crooks play to the emotions of caring Americans. All these people want to do is help someone in an unfortunate situation, and they end up getting screwed over.”

For a while, that’s how I thought of the situation as well. That is, until yesterday, when I received such an email. The subject line didn’t read “please help me” or “my friend needs your assistance”. It said “Make $100, just by depositing a check.” For fear of viruses, I didn’t open up the whole email, but my email server shows a preview of the message. It was written in really bright, flashy, colors, with lots of exclamation points, and a decidedly upbeat attitude.

It was then that I realized, these people aren’t playing towards American’s emotions, they’re playing towards American’s greed. They’re not so naïve to think that Americans will really care about some poor suffering businessman in Nigeria, they know that the only thing on the minds of most Americans is how to make an extra buck or two. And by the popularity of their schemes, they seem to be right.

All in the name of Miss Manners

There are really not very many people that I Dislike. Some I like more than others, and obviously, I would prefer to spend my time with those. However, there is one particular person who really bothers me, and would fall into the “Dislike” category. He’s extremely socially awkward, but that’s not what bothers me. I’m friends with an alarmingly large amount of socially awkward folks.

No, what bothers me about this guy is one particular incident. The first time I met him was at a Shabbos meal. He happened to be sitting next to me, and throughout the meal, did not talk very often, but did turn his head so that it was perpendicular to his neck.

I finally asked him why he was doing that, and he answered that he likes to look at the world from various paradigms. Clearly, the most literal way of doing so is to actually turn your head. (?) Well, I let that go, and continued to make conversation with someone else.

Now, apparently, this guy thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world to turn his head at an angle whenever he sees me. I’m going to be frank, and say that this creeps me out. A lot. So I tend to avoid this guy.

Well, last Shabbos, I was making a meal in my apartment. The guest list turned out to have 5 girls and 1 guy. I was a little uncomfortable with this ratio, so I decided I needed to invite more guys. Problem is, it’s winter break, and there’s just not that many guys here over break. However, I do have 2 other guy friends who are here.

But now, I ran into another problem. These 2 guys are roommates, and guess who roommate number 3 is. Yep, Creepy Guy.

I couldn’t invite both the others without inviting the 3rd (I’m not THAT rude), but I wanted to avoid Creepy Guy at all costs. So I had to make a decision-which friend to invite. I hated making the decision, but I did.

The meal turned out fabulous (I even made challah and babganoush for the first time!), and the 2:5 ratio wasn’t a problem at all. Still, I really wish Creepy Guy would just do me a really big favor and transfer schools. Please?