Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Dov Lipman's Problem with English

Just from the outset, I want to make clear that this post is going to seem petty, and that you're going to get the impression that I'm just being "that guy". You know the one I'm talking about. He's always self-righteously correcting your grammar, and seeming to enjoy it. (Word of warning: if you don't know anyone like that, it may be you. And it's often me.)

The truth is, more than correcting grammar, I like irony. It's just part of my particular sense of humor. That's why I liked Dov Lipman's Open Letter to the Baltimore Jewish Community. (Since the internet is an ever-evolving medium, I'm including the original text of the letter at the bottom of this post. On the off-chance that Lipman reads this and edits his letter, which I would encourage, I don't want to look foolish.)

In short, the letter is an attempt by Dov to defend his position, after being harshly (and unfairly, in my opinion) criticized by the current Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael, a yeshiva which Dov attended. His first point is that the "Israeli government should not fund institutions which don't teach basic math and English". (His words; there's no point trying to paraphrase this one.) He goes on to explain the importance of these subjects, in particular to Chareidim (note the capital "C").

I had some difficulty reading his letter. Not because I disagreed with his views. Quite the contrary; he makes a compelling case, and, at least for me, he was preaching to the choir. The difficulty stemmed from the fact that I can't help being "that guy". The one who's uptight about grammar and sentence structure. The article was rife with missing commas (the kind which would, if included, have made the sentence less confusing), misplaced modifiers, awkward sentences, lack of verb agreement, and other minor misdeeds.

Had the letter been on a different topic, I would have left it alone. But it was about the importance of learning English. The letter was written in English, so, inevitably, the medium became part of the message. It was quite ironic that, in coming to defend the importance of teaching English to Israelis, a native English speaker's writing (on technical marks, anyway; I'm not judging his style) was so lacking.

(*** Bonus: This blog post contains a number of grammatical errors, just for fun and in keeping with the topic. See if you can find them all. ***)

Original text of the letter
To the Baltimore Jewish Community:
I owe so much to Ner Yisrael and want to be clear from the outset that my words are not against the yeshiva.  Tremendous damage for me and the yeshiva has been caused by an audio tape in which I am quoted as saying something which I never said and anyone who knows me knows I would never say.  I was quoted as saying that "all yeshiva ketanos in Israel should be closed" and then for all intents and purposes I was called a rasha and equated with Amalek and Haman.  The following is what I actually have said and what my political party Yesh Atid is working for:
1) The Israeli government should not fund institutions which don't teach basic math and English.  Yeshivos which don't do so will not be closed down but they won't receive government funding.  It should be pointed out that there are numerous yeshivos which already take zero government money and continue to flourish. Adina Bar Shalom, Rav Ovadiah Yosef's daughter appeared before the Knesset task force to help Haredim enter the work force which I founded and begged us to implement math and English because 50 percent of the boys in her chareidi college drop out due to their lack of math and English.  I meet regularly with chareidi young men who are still completely in the chareidi world and they tell me that the one thing which is necessary is some basic math and English.  I believe it is a sound decision for a government to make and look forward to seeing the yeshiva ketanos flourish and continue producing gedolei Torah while teaching basic math and English.  Ironically, the basis for my supporting this plan knowing that gedolei Torah can still be produced if general studies are taught is actually Ner Yisrael which produces.
2) Comparing me or anyone in my party to Amalek and Haman who wanted to kill all Jews including "children and women" is simply incomprehensible.  We are going to help Chareidim sustain their families - literally feed their children - and we are compared to murderers???  On the spiritual level, we are proposing that 1,800 elite Torah scholars per year be recognized as serving the state and the Jewish people through their Torah study (the first time in history that a government will pay Jewish boys for their learning from a fundamental which says they are providing us with a service), the rest can study Torah uninterrupted until age 21 and then serve in military or national service geared specifically to chareidim and their lifestyle  - and we are compared to Amalek and Haman?
3) I would have never joined this party without meeting its leaders first and really understanding who they are and their intentions.  The ministers and Knesset members in my party have no hate towards anyone and are not hoping that anyone becomes less religious.  Yair Lapid openly declared that the religious side in Israel has shown the secular side that our basis to be in this land is G-d and our Tanach.  The driving force behind our policies regarding the Chareidim is to generate unity and most importantly to get Chareidim to the work force.  Money will be flowing to programs to help Chareidim get to work.  My dream is to see the hi-tech corridors of Raanana, law and accounting firms in Tel Aviv, and government offices in Yerushalayim filled with Chareidim.  Most young Chareidi young men are not cut out to learn Torah day and night for their entire lives and this will empower them to be Talmidei Chachamim, Bnei Torah, and also supporting their families with dignity.  This will also have an immensely positive effect on Israeli society which will finally see the beautiful values and people in the Chareidi world.  My e-mail in-box is filled with letters of support from Chareidim who say they finally see a future for their children - they will remain Chareidi but also not be impoverished.  I must also note that our party started the first ever Beis Midrash for Knesset members in the history of the Knesset.  Every Tuesday at 3:00p.m. we stop our busy schedules and sit in a committee room and learn Torah together - religious and secular MK's.  Is this a group of people who deserve to be called reshayim, Haman, and Amalek?
I certainly hope the misquote will be acknowledged and that the comparison to Amalek and Haman will be taken back.  Misunderstandings happen and can always be corrected.
Let us all learn the lesson of the dangers of the rumor mill and misquotes and let's work together to strengthen Torah study, the spreading of Torah values, and unity amongst the Jewish people.
Dov Lipman

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Budgetary Warning to Chareidim

In last weekend's Makor Rishon, there was an article about how the IDF views Chareidi education. They know for sure that twelve years of Chareidi education is not the same as twelve years of education in the state-run system. In the IDF's estimation, the average graduate of the Chareidi school system has an education somewhere in the sixth- through eighth-grade level.

In order to deal with this phenomenon, the IDF will be providing an educational framework for Chareidim who are drafted, in order to complete their education to reach a level which is on par with that of other inductees. They expect that in some cases, Hebrew language will need to be taught as well.

The article did not mention this, but education costs money, and a portion of the state budget will need to go toward reaching this goal.

In the news last week was a widely reported proposal (clearly aimed at Chareidi schools, though it may affect others as well) that in order to be eligible for full state funding, a school needs to teach at least 55% of the core curriculum.

Taken together, these two proposals should be taken by Chareidim as a warning. One way or another, the state will make sure that your kids' education will cover certain subjects to a certain level, which will be determined by a governmental body. You have the option to take care of it in your own educational system, under the auspices and guidance of your leaders. And you'll get the budget for it from the state. If you pass on this option, the IDF will get your budget, and they will handle this part of your kids education, without any input from you.

Viewed in this light, the IDF's plan to educate Chareidim within a military framework should provide a powerful incentive for them to teach the core curriculum in their own schools.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Dov Lipman's Problem with Hebrew

Dov Lipman has a problem with Hebrew. No, I don't think that he can't speak it very well. As a (relatively) recent immigrant, he seems to have a fairly good command of the local language, and he doesn't shy away from using it. He is also reportedly taking (or will be taking) Hebrew lessons, using a stipend which is part of his compensation package as a Member of Knesset.

Lipman's problem is that Hebrew does not have a case distinction. The form of each letter does not change to reflect the meaning of the word. For example, Potsie may have gone to Ralph at Arnold's Drive In, but he would never admit to going to ralph at Arnold's Drive In. Similarly, many Orthodox American Jews describe themselves as being "conservative with a small 'c'".

Lipman calls himself a "chareidi" (ultra-orthodox). He has done it in private, in public, and from the floor of the Knesset. It's pretty much beyond dispute that he fully sees himself as being chareidi.

However, not everyone agrees. MK Yaakov Asher from the chareidi UTJ party certainly does not. In a recent speech, Lipman responded to Asher's charge that he (Lipman) is not chareidi. The thrust of his argument was that the word "chareidi" is from the the verse in Isaiah (66:5) in which the prophet speaks to those who "tremble before the word of God".

The problem is that Lipman is constrained by the Hebrew language. In English, we might say that someone is "Chareidi with a capital "ch", to stress that he is a member of a particular socioeconomic group called "chareidim". Someone who "trembles before the word of God", i.e., he takes his religious duties seriously in all aspects of his life might very well consider himself to be "chareidi", but he is not "Chareidi".

Lipman's detractors seem to be at a loss, since their native language doesn't allow for this distinction. They know that there's a flaw in Lipman's assertion, but they lack the vocabulary to express it. If they did, they may point out that according to Lipman's own logic, he could also be described as Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist), Masorati (Conservative, literally means "traditional"), Meshichist (Messianic; OK, that one's a bit of a stretch), or a Maskil (literally, "enlightened" or "educated", he is certainly more educated than many other members of Knesset; this term is used to refer to a forerunner of Reform Judaism).

This is more than merely a semantic issue. Lipman is obfuscating the difference between the etymology of a word and its meaning. (I hesitate to make the comparison, but it illustrates the point very well. A well-known Arab leader once responded to a charge of being antisemitic by claiming that he couldn't be, since he was Semitic as well. He confused, perhaps on purpose, the origin of the term "antisemitic" with the fact that term was coined to mean "hatred of Jews", not "hatred of anything with Semitic origins".) The word "Chareidi" may come from the verse referring to those that "tremble before the word of God", but not everyone who takes his religious duties seriously (as I have no doubt that Lipman does, and no less so than any other member of Knesset) is part of the socioeconomic group known as "Chareidim".

There's always the big issue of "so what?". In other words, what's the harm in letting Lipman call himself a Chareidi? Who is he hurting? As a public figure, and especially as a member of Knesset, his association with particular groups is important. If a leading figure in the Likud, for example, would call for an end to port strikes, it would probably be ignored. But if a leading member of the Labor party, for example, would make a similar call, it would have a huge impact in the conversation about the justification of such strikes. The Labor party strives to represent the worker, and their taking a stance against workers' historical position would lend credence to the call.

(When I was growing up, this was known as the "own teammate" argument. In an unorganized sports game, any disputed call which was agreed to by a member of the team against which the call was made was almost always accepted, since even your "own teammate" agreed to it. To the pre-adolescent mind, this line of reasoning was widely considered to be unassailable. Even to more mature minds, this type of logic, while not airtight, carries a great deal of weight.)

Similarly, Lipman is in a position in which he makes calls which are generally against the ones made by Chareidi leadership. By claiming membership in the group, he is giving the impression that he represents the group. He does not. There may be many Chareidim who agree with him, and his views may have solid foundation in traditional Torah sources, but he is not "Chareidi".