Rabbis with Answers

The JTA ran an article recently about the development of new web sites to answer questions from Jews around the world. Our own JewishAnswers.org features prominently, of course, though the article missed what I consider JewishAnswers’ greatest advantage: by using technology to distribute the questions, we have a network of over 60 participating rabbis and educators. The result is a wonderful collaborative effort involving dozens of different Jewish outreach organizations.

Worse than that, though, the JTA called upon Samuel Heilman to put the most negative possible spin on the altruistic efforts of over 100 people overall (even though some are paid for their efforts, the true “money quote” comes from Rabbi Yosef Carmel, dean of the Eretz Hemdah Institute: “The connection between money and mitzvot is not good”).

Heilman explained the dearth of non-Orthodox sites as the nature of the different movements. “The Orthodox rabbinate is much more willing to tell people what to do,” Heilman said.

I don’t mind criticism when it is informed and fair, but when it comes to anything involving the Orthodox community, especially the charedi community, Samuel Heilman can be relied upon for commentary as ignorant as it is bigoted. If one has any doubt in this particular case, browsing JewishAnswers should resolve it immediately.

Because JewishAnswers is published in blog format, a visit to the home page brings up the most recent twenty answers published. Currently, 85% have no instructive content whatsoever. They cannot be construed as telling anyone to do anything, unless you call “You can browse their stuff” (for further information) “telling people what to do.”

The other three are responses to requests for information — from a woman wanting to know how to light candles, from a groom on preparing for his wedding, and from a woman with fertility problems on appropriate prayers. What sort of sick individual would call recommending some prayers to a distressed woman, or advising a nervous groom about approaching his intended’s father for his blessing, “telling people what to do?”

That’s not Heilman’s sickness, though. He never checked the site. He never checked AskMoses or any of the others, either, all of which are similar in content and intent. His sickness is that he is so bigoted against the Orthodox (though he is observant himself) that when confronted with the contrast between “the dearth of non-Orthodox sites” and the plethora of Orthodox ones, he is compelled to offer a completely uninformed and innaccurate explanation that casts Orthodox responsiveness and generosity in as sinister a light as he can manage.

Consider how few young Jews today get a strong Jewish education. They are often embarrassed to walk into a synagogue and demonstrate to a Rabbi how little they know. The Internet is now the first recourse when young people seek out information on a topic — so the development of informational Jewish web sites can make the difference between sparking interest and helping close the information gap, or losing that young Jew forever.

Once again, it is the Orthodox leading the fight to save the Jewish future. But you’ll get anything but that from Heilman and his well-worn axe.

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25 Responses

  1. Michelle says:


    For those Jews who are finding their way back, or who find themselves working in some small town somewhere there is no Jewish community, the religious websites are a G-d send (literally!).

    There is no time in our history when Jewish education was so widely available to so many people in so many places. If you are a Jew in the middle of nowhere, and you need a p’sk, these websites are tremendously helpful–especially for those weird questions like, “one of my chickens came into the house through the cat door on Shabbat and my dog was trying to kill it. I had to trap it in a laundry basket in order to put it outside. If this happens again–did I do the right thing?”

    I just wish there were some Sephardic Rabbis available–it seems like every site has only Ashkenazi Rabbis–and this can be a problem.


  2. Micha Berger says:

    While I applaud “ask the rabbi” sites, we need to be clear that that’s not how halakhah is supposed to be done.

    Could we think of some way of weaning people from asking such questions anonymously to finding a rabbi? Perhaps hints to “ask at your local yeshiva or contact Partners in Torah if you want to learn more”?


  3. Caliban Darklock says:

    It’s interesting to ask a basic question.

    If the Orthodox are more willing to tell people what to do, that naturally implies that the non-Orthodox are less willing to tell people what to do.

    So where do you go if you aren’t sure what to do?

    Well, you go to the Orthodox. They’re more likely to tell you what to do. Which leads us to the important part of the question.

    Why go to a rabbi if you don’t want guidance? The word means “teacher”. If you approach the teacher, shouldn’t you expect to be taught?

    Seriously, this is a big question for me. I usually go to my rabbi because I have found fault with my interpretation of the Torah, and I want someone knowledgeable to explain how I have misinterpreted it. If my rabbi cannot explain this, I have a fundamental problem with that.

    My underlying assumption is that my rabbi knows more Torah than I, and is sufficiently studied to explain both the source of my misunderstanding and why my resultant conclusion is flawed. If he is unable or unwilling to do this, he is no teacher, and therefore should not be a rabbi.

    So if only the Orthodox are willing to do this, doesn’t this mean only the Orthodox are rabbis?

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Good advice is precious and takes many forms. The willingness to ask the right people for it and accept it is a mark of a serious, committed human being. If the Orthodox public is more serious and committed than some other publics, that should thrill Dr. Heilman.

    Some Orthodox Jews go so far as to seek out or even pay for Dr. Heilman’s advice as delivered in print and in person. That really does need an explanation.

  5. Michoel says:

    I think the problem is more in the way he expressed himself than in the idea expressed. If someone would say that “having rabbis give concrete guidance as to how to conduct oneself is much more a part of Orthodox culture” I think that would be a fair and accurate statement.

  6. S. says:

    >His sickness is that he is so bigoted against the Orthodox (though he is observant himself)

    Why the switch in terminology?

  7. S. says:

    >could we think of some way of weaning people from asking such questions anonymously to finding a rabbi?

    In all seriousness, we might also have to think of some way of weaning the rabbinate towards electronic formats, besides the age-old one-on-one. There is little to suggest that this format is going to go away, so maybe some way of making it work should be sought.

  8. Yaakov Menken says:

    Michelle, thank you for your warm endorsement! Rabbi Michael Shliyeh-sabou of the Valley Kollel participates in Jewish Answers, and you can request that questions be sent to him. I also was directed a question where the person requested specifically a Sephardic ruling, and I called one of the local Sephardi Rabbonim.

    Micha, You’re right — and we do that! JewishAnswers.com is designed to open a dialogue. Our system uses geographic targeting information to direct questions to a local resource. We can only answer a question of Halacha if there’s an unambiguous answer. Most of the questions, though, as you see on the site, either fall into that category or are of a philosophical rather than practical nature.

    Caliban, that’s an interesting challenge. I just don’t think most people regard “telling people what to do” as positively as you do. In any case, it’s obvious that if someone comes to you asking what to do, the appropriate, kind, considerate thing is to answer. It takes a particular kind of nasty cynicism to put that negatively. For myself, I’m glad that you’ve continued to visit after our dialogue from Volokh Conspiracy moved here!

    S., I suppose I could have said “Orthodox” or “modern Orthodox” instead, but if anything my point was that he’s actually shomer shabbos (as far as I know).

  9. Menachem Petrushka says:

    have read the article in JTA online and find nothing offensive in Samuel Heilman’s statement that Orthodox Rabbis are more willing to tell people what to do than non-Orthodox rabbis. I guess he could have used the word “teach people what to do”, but that is getting picky. That is what Orthodox Rabbonim are supposed to do. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, if my memory serves me correctly, said that a Rav who does not have the town wanting to throw him out is not doing his job.

    Wheteher Mr Heileman statement is germane to the Ask The Rabbi issue where many of the questions are informational and not halachic per se is another matter.

    Secondly I could not see what Rabbi Careml statement had to do with the story immedialtely preceding it which informed us that “ask the rabbi” services are free regardless of how much money it cost to provide them. It seems that he was congratulating the sponsors for not charging a fee for their services,

  10. SephardiLady says:

    I just wish there were some Sephardic Rabbis available—it seems like every site has only Ashkenazi Rabbis—and this can be a problem.


    These are two excellent Sephardi resources:

    http://dailyhalacha.com/ (I can’t recommend this sight enough. It is an excellent resource and seems to be halacha l’maaseh as evidenced through our Rav’s psak).

    http://judaic.org/ (Some of the essays are very enlightening about how the Sephardi mindset and the interplay with halacha).

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Unfortunately, Dr. Heilman’s opinions and views of Torah Judaism in all of its permutations except the most LW MO can be described as a mile wide and an inch deep. That is especially the case in his most recent book “Sliding To The Right” which has a lot of information but major sociological, hashkafic and historical flaws . i particularly found an egregious error his lumping together of KGH, Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Boro Park and his reliance upon websites and street posters as opposed to interviewing actual residents and or communal leaders.

  12. Jewish Observer says:

    “Why the switch in terminology?”

    I think the choice of terminology is spot on.

    Orthodoxy is an idealogy; and that is what he is against. Observance is an objective description of behavior. So, he is gagainst the ideology of Orthodoxy despite of the fact that he is observably observant, normally aligned with the Orthodox ideology.

  13. ilana says:

    “While I applaud “ask the rabbi” sites, we need to be clear that that’s not how halakhah is supposed to be done.”

    Yes, asking an orthodox rabbi in person – especially one who knows you personally – is much better than asking over the internet.

    But for many of the people who use these sites, the alternative might be asking a non-orthodox rabbi. It might be looking up the answer for themselves in a book. It might be making a decision without seeking any guidance at all.

    The internet makes communities and worldviews that would once have been foreign and inaccessible immediately available. That’s why it is so dangerous: A person whose life is normally completely within the frum community has total access to all kinds of heresy, filth, etc with the click of a mouse. The ask-the-rabbi sites can have the reverse effect. A person whose life is normally completely devoid of Torah, who has never met an orthodox Jew, who would be terribly intimidated to call up an orthodox rabbi – now has access to Torah.

  14. mb says:

    I have no idea who Samuel Heilman is. For the life of me, at least from this article I cannot understand what R.Menken is ranting about.
    Would you like to clarify?

  15. S. says:

    >I think the choice of terminology is spot on.

    Nu, but that’s not the reason R. Menken switched.

  16. Bob Miller says:

    “Orthodoxy is an idealogy; and that is what he is against. Observance is an objective description of behavior. So, he is gagainst the ideology of Orthodoxy despite of the fact that he is observably observant, normally aligned with the Orthodox ideology.

    Comment by Jewish Observer”

    You’re observably an Observer!

  17. grose says:

    Rabbi Shimon Green, Shlitah (Rosh Yeshiva of Bircas HaTorah) pointed out that in the NY Police Department that at one point they would have mentors, informally known as “rabbis” The job of these “rabbis” were to watch out for the career of the person assigned to the “rabbi”. And Rav Green explains that is EXACTLY what a rabbi does for those who ask his advice – looks out for his “career” as a Jew, tells him the right moves to make him move forward, unhindered to his goals. So, yes, rabbis “tell people what to do”, as do therapists, career coachs and NYPD “rabbis”. And the lives of those who ask the rabbis are infinitely more sucessful for the asking.

  18. Jewish Observer says:

    “You’re observably an Observer!”

    – that’s Obserd!

  19. Jewish Observer says:

    “Nu, but that’s not the reason R. Menken switched.”

    – OK, so speak your piece. Why DID he switch? because Heilman is not heimish?

  20. Heilman says:

    Before asserting that I never checked any of the web sites or blogs to which I referred, you’d do well to check the facts. I did, I do, and I stand by my assertion that the Orthodox are more willing than others to tell people what to do. They have also used blogs, alas, like this one, to engage in slander and name-calling. As for my sympathies or lack thereof for the Orthodox, I suggest you try to tone down your obvious prejudices. If you read DEFENDERS OF THE FAITH or THE GATE BEHIND THE WALL, you’d hardly call my work unsympathetic to Orthodoxy. Sympathy or antipathy has nothing to do with it. I call it as I see it.

  21. Yaakov Menken says:

    Long before there were blogs, there were multiple other venues for those who like to call charedim “fundamentalist,” “monist,” and/or “Manichean.” While I agree that too many blogs have become venues for slander and name-calling, it is foolish to assert that the charedim are responsible for even a proportionate share.

    One would be hard pressed to find any name that I called Prof. Heilman, and I also “call it as I see it” — and as I see it, my criticism of Heilman’s commentary, “as ignorant as it is bigoted,” is hardly slander. While the article does not claim that Heilman checked any of the resources, if he did, it makes matters worse. Much of the content of the JewishAnswers home page has changed since I wrote this piece, and none of the new articles “tell people what to do.” The other web sites are similarly informative rather than instructive.

    There is no debate about the fact that “the Orthodox are more willing than others to tell people what to do.” The Torah mandates standards for Jewish practice; the Orthodox continue to adhere to them while others have fewer absolute requirements. But the question was whether this has anything at all to do with the plethora of Orthodox Rabbinic “Q&A” resources, for which this is an extremely poor explanation. It’s not borne out by the nature of the questions, their answers, or the similar explosion of other free Torah educational resources, in which, once again, the Orthodox contribition is overwhelming.

    The quotation obfuscates rather than clarifies. The reality is that a Q&A web site can only provide informative answers to those seeking knowledge, and the Orthodox are more likely to spend their time being generous with their knowledge in this way.

    The following quotation from Prof. Heilman’s Jews and Fundamentalism is similar, again distorting the reality in a negative fashion:

    Whether quiescent or active, cultural and social struggle is at the heart of fundamentalism. There must be an enemy. Fundamentalists are much better at fighting against something than at simply defining what it is they stand for. And that is why they often thrive precisely where they can perceive themselves as surrounded by enemies. The promise of a better time is always easier to live with than the need to deliver on the promise when the time has come, as the fundamentalist regimes that come to power soon discover.

    So Prof. Heilman says that the “fundamentalists” don’t know what they stand for, but only what they stand against. If that is true, this merely disproves Heilman’s assertion that either the charedim or Gush Emunim are in fact fundamentalists. Much of the Modern Orthodox world has trouble defining what they stand for (the demise of Edah, of which Prof. Heilman was a supporter, is perhaps related). The Conservatives and Reform can tell you that they know G-d isn’t triune, but have a very hard time defining who G-d Is (see the Conservative Emet V’Emunah). The charedim were quite happy being charedim in the era of the Shach, the Taz, and the Vilna Gaon, when there was no opposing party in the Jewish world.

    Hence, it is not surprising that at least in the case of Jewish fundamentalism, one finds its adherents in two of the most visible precincts of secularity and modernity: the United States and especially New York, as well as the modern state of Israel. In both these locales, the enemy and the counterculture are quite close and visible.

    Proof that charedim are fundamentalists: they live in the United States and Israel. Did Prof. Heilman fail to notice that the vast majority of Jews live in the United States (and especially New York) and Israel? Where would one otherwise have expected to find charedim? Poland? Shanghai?

    Oh, that’s right, they did. Charedim were in Poland for hundreds of years, until the Nazis rendered it Judenrein. Only an unimaginable level of bias could possibly lead to finding a “proof” that they exist only in order to battle “secularity and modernity” from the fact that they live in the US and Israel… like the rest of the Jewish world.

  22. Baruch Horowitz says:

    I heard Dr. Heilman in two recent radio interviews, and I don’t think that he means any menace towards the right-wing. As a member of Modern Orthodox society, I feel that Dr. Heilman can and should offer suggestions on how to strengthen Modern Orthodoxy(however one defines that). Some Modern Orthodox organizations are indeed engaged in this. I was futher gratified that there was an exchange in a recent Jewish Observer issue between Rabbi Shafran and Dr. Heilman; I think intramural dialogue in Orthodoxy is healthy and important, and should be done as much as is feasible.

    Regarding the use of the word “fundamentalists”, while it might be useful in strictly academic classification and nomenclature(see quote below from Dr. Heilman), nevertheless, the academia needs to be sensitive to the overtones and implications of the usage of language in ordinary communication. The Associated Press’ AP Stylebook, for example, recommends that the term fundamentalist should not be used for any group that does not apply the term to itself. Similarly, while one psychologist writing in the Jewish Observer some time ago identified parents as the primary cause of “kids at risk”, others noted that the causes were complex. Even if the first psychologist was correct, the Jewish imperative to judge favorably and compassionately needs to come through, even in an objective, scholarly analysis.

    Dr. Heilman mentioned on an interview on the OU’s “Around the Dining Room Table”(primarily focused on the future of Modern Orthodoxy, as opposed to analyzing Charedim):

    “… there is a kind of family resemblance between the outlook that this kind of Orthodoxy has and both Christian and Islamist fundamentalism…[fundamentalism]is not always a useful word, it’s a word that gets people’s attention.”

    However, in the popular mind, the word(whether quiescent or active) is associated with Islamic terrorists, so it should not be used at all. Furthermore, as noted in the Jewish Observer, people using the term would be hard-put not to apply the term towards the Chafetz Chaim or other Gedolie Torah, who had some awfully “fundamentalist” positions regarding secular education! Finally, some definitions(from Wikepedia) would apply equally to Modern Orthodoxy(“anchoring life in the authority of the sacred” or “beleiving the Torah to be the authentic and literal word of G-d”).

    The Neturie Karta or those who physically attack or demonstrate against Gedolim they disagree with are indeed “fundamentalists”, because they allow their single concern to outweigh all other concerns in a “black and white” manner, while ignoring nuance, balance, and Halacha and Mussar. While I might be unhappy about the arguable trend of seeing things in black and white that leads to banning books, I don’t think that it would be appropriate or fair to call this “fundamentalism”, because this is being done out of legitimate Halachic or hahkafic concerns, whether I personally agree with them or not.

  23. Bob Miller says:

    Why let facts get in the way of a good argument?

  24. Jewish Observer says:

    1. “The Orthodox are more willing than others to tell people what to do.”

    2. “you’d do well to check the facts.”

    There should be no doubt about Dr. Heilman’s Orthodoxy

  25. Bob Miller says:

    See Marvin Schick’s recent analysis of Dr. Heilman’s approach.

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