Awakening Injustice

JTA reported this week that a Solomon Schechter affiliated day school in suburban Philadelphia unilaterally decertified its teachers’ union and will no longer negotiate with it, claiming that, as a religious institution, the school is exempt from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. The union was a member of the American Federation of Teachers. This is but another assault on the integrity of the labor union movement. Horrors!

It sounds like a job for Uri L’tzedek.

That organization is a self-styled campaigner for “Orthodox Social Justice,” that is to say, the pursuit of “social justice” by Orthodox Jews. That qualification is added because it seems that their targets, and not just their inspiration, have been almost exclusively Orthodox Jews and companies run by Orthodox Jews.

Undoubtedly, they have some fine achievements to their credit in ensuring the rights of workers and the downtrodden. In employee matters, in essence, they have sought the enforcement of laws that already exist (such as minimum wage, overtime, working conditions, etc.), which sounds redundant except when one considers that not every employee or group of employees has advocates that can address their grievances.

But the very term “social justice” has never inspired confidence among conservatives because justice qualified is often justice denied. “Social” justice seems to imply justice only for a certain segment of the population perceived as less fortunate than others. Justice, then, for the employer, business owner, taxpayer, etc. must be sought elsewhere and presumably by others. That is not justice at all.

Indeed, the Torah is quite clear on this matter. Notwithstanding society’s obligation to assist the poor and the downtrodden, we are admonished: “Do not glorify the destitute in his [legal] grievance” (Shemot 23:3), and Rashi explains that we should not show any special deference (“honor”) to justify the legal claim of the poor just because he is poor. Justice is a universal principle, and not the province of any one group.

Thus, rather than represent “Orthodox Social Justice,” this organization adheres to fairly doctrinaire leftist political views under the guise of a few well selected platitudes drawn from our sacred literature, and very selectively applied. For example, is there a Torah position on a minimum wage, or on increasing the minimum wage by a certain number of dollars per hour? Not that I know of. Indeed, one can make a cogent argument that any minimum wage upsets the equilibrium through which employers and employees negotiate the relative value of salary versus services provided. It sounds good in theory (and to an extent has worked well in practice) but increases in the minimum wage generally bring reduced employment at those entry level jobs (in addition to driving up employment costs for higher wage employees whose wages are linked to a certain multiple of the minimum wage). Wouldn’t it be “just” to allow a potential employee, faced with a choice between unemployment or employment at a reduced wage, to make that choice himself, freely? The advocates of “social justice” say a hearty, and somewhat self-righteous, “no.” But the poor pay the price for that self-righteousness.

This is not to advocate for or against a minimum wage but a simple recognition that “justice” is not to be found on only one side of the argument, and that such leftist propaganda should not be allowed to masquerade as “Torah” or as “Orthodox.”

Or, to take another example drawn from Uri L’tzedek’s own writings, they claim to seek protections for both documented and undocumented workers. “Undocumented workers” is leftist slang for illegal aliens, who have no residence documents, presumably because they sneaked into the country and therefore could not procure the appropriate documents from the authorities, like, for instance, at a border crossing. Certainly, no person should be mistreated but nor is any person above the law. But how to deal with illegal aliens is ultimately a political, not a moral, question, and certainly not one for which the “Torah” presents clear guidelines. One can make a compelling moral argument that illegal aliens should be afforded rights, protections, amnesty, family unification, etc., even assuming they have to pay some penalty for their prior felonious conduct. But one can make an equally compelling moral argument that a nation has the right (maybe even in our dangerous world where terrorists lurk everywhere seeking to exploit vulnerabilities, the obligation) to secure its borders, deport illegal entrants and determine who can enter and when, and especially when the financial cost of sustaining, educating and healing the newcomers will be largely borne by the indigenous citizenry.

Is there a “Torah” view on how to solve the US immigration problem? Not that I know of. It is a political, not a moral, decision. Should one take purely political positions and masquerade them as “Torah”? I think not. Should an organization that purports to fight for “justice” aid those who are willfully breaking the law or actively seek the non-enforcement of laws duly enacted by a civilized, democratic society? I think not. There is no right to selectively choose to follow certain laws and not others and certainly no justice in the outcome.

Which brings us to the topic de jour. This week the intrepid battlers for “social justice” waded into a public school funding controversy in Monsey, New York, my old hometown. With the population now overwhelmingly Orthodox, even Haredi, the public school board in Ramapo is controlled by Orthodox citizens who want the dominant voice in deciding how their tax dollars are allocated to the public schools. That is the reality of demographics and public policy, one not unfamiliar to us in New Jersey. It seems both fair and just.

There has always been a basic inequity that requires Orthodox parents to pay for their own children’s education and simultaneously pay for their secular neighbor’s children’s public school education. This dual taxation has crippled many Orthodox families, and significantly increased the pressure on the breadwinner to earn salaries disproportionately higher than the norms of American life just to subsist.

For sure, I recognize the need for a public school system and our obligations as citizens to subsidize it. But the polity would have to educate our children anyway, and we are obviously providing a great savings to our neighbors (not to mention a better education for our children, for the most part) by paying for it ourselves.

There are jurisdictions that take note of this inequity, and have found ways (for one, government vouchers that allot a certain stipend per student and allow parents to choose any school, public or private, for their children) to offset the costs on the Orthodox families. School districts could assume the financial responsibility for the secular educational component of a yeshiva education without any constitutional unrest. There are many other jurisdictions – the norm, really – in which the school board votes itself (or its teachers and staff) annual increases, luxurious facilities, and generous pensions. Where Orthodox Jews live but are not the majority, we pay for it disproportionately, and it is an onerous tax burden. Teacher salaries and the quality of the facilities at Yeshivot lag way behind that of the secular system. Justice and fairness would seem to favor equity.

Yet, this week, a caped crusader from Uri L’Tzedek (literally; he apparently wore a talit to the press conference, and not that I have anything against people who wear capes) lambasted the Haredi control of the Ramapo school system and demanded a state takeover. He apparently advocates high taxation without any representation. The job of the school board is to ensure a quality education for its students, which does not always require more money, and at the least to verify that all its students actually reside in the district and are not interlopers from elsewhere. The main complaint seems to be the loss of jobs, which troubles the teachers’ unions but not anyone who perceives the declining enrollment due to the change in demographics. Others decry the loss of perks to which they had grown accustomed when the Orthodox alone paid for them.

One complaint stood out: that crime has allegedly increased in the Ramapo public school system because the Haredi-controlled school board cut the funding for school security guards. That is a startling complaint with interesting ramifications. I doubt there is even one security guard in any yeshiva, which somehow does not translate into a crime rate of any sort. Perhaps the problem lies not in the absence of security guards but in the dearth of morals.

It seems that Uri L’tzedek in its eagerness for “social justice” has lost sight of some basic principles. First, just because Haredim do or say something does not necessarily mean they are wrong or unjust (!). Second, justice does not always lie with the teachers v. the administrators, with the unions v. the owners, with the employees v. the employers, with the illegal alien v. the citizen, with the tenants v. the landlords, with the non-Orthodox v. the Orthodox, and with the non-Jew v. the Jew. Usually, true justice is somewhere in between.

To be taken seriously by anyone outside the far-left echo chamber and its media acolytes, they should broaden their world view just a bit. Will the Perelman Jewish Day School outside Philadelphia soon behold the protests of the caped crusader and his union allies, and feel the daggers of the do-gooders? Or is the school exempt from such demonstrations because it is not Orthodox? We shall see. I hope the Samaritans desist only because it is none of their business how a real business operates its business, as long as it is legal and ethical. And even then it is none of their business, but the business of the authorities.

To paraphrase a recent book in a related context, this new group sees the Torah as a “useful ally” when it confirms its biases but otherwise can be safely ignored. Generally, it is conventionally a creation of the left and reflecting the values of the left. To be fair, even in that, it invariably serves a legitimate purpose in keeping the Jewish people always striving for ethical improvements. But it cannot be done in a heavy-handed, dogmatic and reflexively biased way, but with more balance, forethought and sensitivity. In Monsey, for one example, it has allied itself with the wrong people and with the wrong cause.

Just wondering: does this union of humanitarians investigate the business practices of its donors? The media always love the liberal watchdogs, but who exactly is watching the watchdogs?

 

Defense? Hardly

Well, in a week, I went from being anti-Haredi to pro-abuser, at least to my detractors. Of course, I am neither, but why did I write a letter seeking lenient treatment for someone who pleaded guilty to a number of grave and lascivious crimes? And why, given the exact same circumstances (Heaven forbid), would I do it again?

I hesitate to mention names and details because of the unseemliness of the matter. To my detractors, I have been accused of “defending” an abuser and justifying his conduct. But seeking the court’s mercy for a particular miscreant is not the same as defending him, justifying him, downplaying his crimes or asserting his innocence. It is certainly not the same as blaming the victim, being insensitive to their plight, or encouraging more abuse. It is exactly what it sounds like: the young man in question was facing a minimum of ten years in prison. I asked the judge to exercise mercy and sentence him to ten years. Ten years is a long time.

I’m the first to tell victims to come forward, press charges, and tell their stories. I want to see the guilty punished and have to reckon with their crimes. I am sickened when abusers get off scot free or serve minimal time, as happens all too frequently. Ten years is a long time. Can he be rehabilitated? I hope so, but I don’t know. Time will tell. What I can say is that I knew the young man in question for several years, and was shocked (!), disappointed, disheartened and then disgusted by his crimes. But I also refuse to believe that his life has to be over.

There is natural compassion for the victim, and all victims. But that does not rule out having compassion flow in other directions as well. Rav Yisrael Salanter, commenting on the verse (Devarim 32:4) “Our Rock, all His works are perfect, all His ways are just…,” asks: can’t human beings also exercise justice? There are courts and judges and legal systems across the world.   Why are only G-d’s ways just?

He answers that the justice of human beings is by definition limited. Man can only focus on the accused and the crime. But what about the effect of his punishment on the spouse and children, or on the family and friends? The human court is limited in its capacity. It cannot deal as readily with the collateral effects of the punishment. Only G-d, for “all His ways are just,” can execute complete and perfect justice.

A heavy term of incarceration was certainly warranted. But should not someone take into account the effect on his parents? Isn’t there any room in people’s hearts for compassion for them? In the span of just a few years, one son has died and their only other son has self-destructed. They are dealing with other difficulties, as well. Is mercy beyond us? Do we lump all perpetrators together, regardless of whether their crimes are identical? Are we so certain that we know all the facts? The easy route would have been to reject their request for a letter requesting the mercy of the court. But how can anyone reject a plea for compassion? It seems natural. It should be natural.

Compassion for the abuser and his family is not synonymous with indifference to his victims. Interestingly, I had no idea that anyone else had written a letter nor did I learn the identity of the other letter writers until just this week, when the story broke. Apparently, others felt a similar desire to exercise compassion – and not because anyone condoned the heinous conduct in question.

For sure, I understand the victim’s mentality, and that of the victims’ rights groups –  that no compassion is warranted, that any sentence is too short. Perhaps they feel that the death penalty is appropriate here, or at least, its equivalent, life imprisonment. That is not the law, nor do the facts here warrant it. Had the facts been different – the facts, not just the public accusations – my approach would have been different. Not everyone deserves compassion. But I do not expect a victim to see beyond his pain. I wouldn’t, at least I don’t think I would. I believe, for example, that all car thieves should go to prison (most don’t, by the way), except for the guy who steals my car, who deserves death. For worse crimes, he deserves a slow and painful death. But that is why the justice of the mob is not real justice.

I admire all advocates for children’s rights and am sickened by the facts of this case, as they are. But for justice to be meted it fairly, we have to be sure that we don’t pile on to one person all the justified grievances that exist because of all other cases and all other victims. All cases – like all people – are not the same. People have different backgrounds, maladies, experiences, challenges and albatrosses. We should not assume we know everything about a person simply because we read a thumbnail sketch on the internet, in a police blotter, or in an indictment.

Indeed, although I think the outcry here is a bit overdone, I am glad it is happening. These crimes should not be treated lightly or blithely dismissed. I don’t even mind being criticized. It ensures caution. The victim’s feelings should be validated. Potential miscreants need to know that the wrath of the community and the legal system will come down on them, and hard. They should seek professional help before they begin to sin.

Nevertheless, at a certain point, there has to be some compassion as well for the plight of the offender. His life need not be over. Would a 30 year sentence have sufficed for his critics, a 40 year sentence? Death by hanging? I am sure some feel that way, and given other circumstances, I might feel the same way. In the end, the judge sentenced this young man to 13 years in prison. It is a long time. I hope he can get his life together and his mind and morals right. I hope his parents can survive this ordeal. And I hope the victims find their peace as well.

I think I was right in seeking the mercy of the minimum sentence of ten years. I think that the detractors are right in their vigorous opposition to the pleas for mercy.

But sometimes – perhaps most times – one has to be kind, and not just right.

 

 

 

The Exchange, Part 2

     I received a response from my interlocutor, and reprint it fully with some minor editing. To make it easy on the reader, I have interspersed my comments within his response. As he asked not to be anonymous, I include his final salutation. May there be shalom al Yisrael!       - RSP

 E – I hope all is well with you and yours.   May you see Yiddishe nachas from all of them.

Thank you for your response. I did not write this letter to you b’mikreh. To the contrary, I heard about your speech and was shocked. No question that we have very bad PR, and I’m also not claiming that our community is perfect – and thus I can be דן לכף זכות — but there are aspects of your response that are so misleading and false and based more in prejudice than in fact or understanding that I felt a need to respond.

The attached document responds in depth to your points. Don’t be offended but we have to know how to respond to an אפקורוס כגון מאן אמר ר”י כגון הני דאמר מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו א”ל אביי האי מגלה פנים בתורה נמי הוא שכתוב אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חוקות שמים וארץ לא שמתי

SP-    I don’t assume that every Haredi is a “rabbanan” in the language of the Gemara. Most are not. I don’t know why you would assume that. And I thinks the problem here transcends PR.

E – Anyone who has had any actual human contact with Hareidim is generally struck by the extent of giving, rather than taking, that characterizes the community. The Har Nof directory has 36 pages of phone numbers and names of gemachs and community services! That’s not to mention, Hatzala, Zaka, Y‎ad Sara, Zichron Menachem, Yad Eliezer among an endless list of large and effective tzedaka organizations that serve the entire Jewish community, frum and chiloni. The endless time and money and energy spent in the world of kiruv rechokim to  bring unaffiliated Jews back to Avinu Sh’b’Shamayim, whether on college campuses, via outreach kollels or baal teshuva seminaries and yeshivas also largely traced to people who until they were in their mid-20s, sat and ingested Torah values and learning in yeshivas and seminaries. Then they spent the rest of their life living it through tzedaka v’chesed rather than chasing money for themselves. The idea that the Haredi world rests on taking rather than giving simply has no correspondence with reality and you should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting otherwise.

SP - The Haredi community has a plethora of chesed organizations. That is very true and speaks to their essential good hearts. But it is often true that the chesed organizations take the place of actual work because they typically lack a secular education that would enable them to join the work force in normative way, especially in Israel. E.g., I often have people come to my door from Israel – heads of “new” chesed organizations – who are simply collecting money for five families, ten families, twenty families, and of course including their own. The chesed is not without its financial benefit. Let us not ignore that.

     Here in America, people do chesed as well and volunteer for organizations. The local Teaneck volunteer ambulance corps is just that – volunteer. We support many of the organizations you mentioned, but you are ignoring the real story. Most chesed organizations provide services – primary or supplemental – and jobs for the organizers. These are jobs also – but jobs that take money out of the economy cannot substitute for jobs that grow the economy. You do not grow an economy with a plethora of chesed organizations. You just re-distribute income from those who work for it to those who don’t. Much more important are organizations that foster employment. Give a man a fish and you’ve given him a meal; teach a man to fish and you’ve given him a livelihood.

    And most of these organizations exist in some form in the non-Haredi communities as well, but they are not as prevalent simply because they usually deal with hardship cases – the sudden poor caused by illness, death, loss of employment or some other tragedy, not the willful poor. When people choose to be poor they encounter a different dynamic entirely. And kiruv is not limited to Haredim, obviously. The fact that there are 36 pages of gemachs in the Har Nof directory is a sign of kindness, but might it not also be a sign of dysfunction? The lack of otherwise gainful employment? And you would certainly be shocked to hear of the abundant charity organizations run by non-Jews in America. The Haredi – even Jewish – instinct for chesed is admirable, but it is not exclusive to them, and certainly should not substitute for gainful employment.

   Note, also, that the “giving” is exclusively on your terms, and not what the rest of the society needs or is asking for.

E – Nearly all my male Hareidi friends and relatives work and pay over 60% in taxes – meanwhile the Government cut our kids’ school budgets by 50%. My son currently gets no milk in the morning because the budget was cut.  Somebody is stealing my tax money, and it’s not the Haredim.

SP – But those are your friends! And you do come from a different background. The rate of adult-male employment in the Haredi world is one of the lowest – I think it is the lowest – in the industrial world. A recent statistic in the Haredi press “boasted” of a 54% adult male employment rate – but that is extraordinarily low. In the rest of the world, the rate in industrialized countries is around 70%. That means that 46% of adult males are being subsidized by someone else.

   Now, who gets what from the government is always a political question. For decades, the Haredi parties chaired the Knesset Finance Committee and used that position to funnel money to their communal needs at the expense of other communities. The election results turned them out of power, and with it, loss of those sinecures. It is a lamentable aspect of Israeli politics that too many people take care only of their own constituents, but, I guess, that is true of politics everywhere, even here in the US. There is nothing moral about it; it is politics. When the Haredim next join the coalition, it will be back to business as usual. BUT: were the school budgets cut because schools refused to comply with the core curriculum? Because there is an expectation of national service that is not being met? Because of bias? The kibbutzim used to have patrons that took care of them in the Knesset, as did the haredim. They also fluctuated based on electoral outcomes. That’s life. Your tax money is not being stolen – it is just being redirected for other national uses.

    Do you feel you are not getting your fair share of return on your tax dollar? If so, welcome to my world! In Teaneck, the Orthodox community pays more than 60% of the property taxes, and our return in services is less than 20% (mainly because we don’t use the public school system). And, double whammy: New Jersey has the lowest ratio in the nation – 50th out of 50 states – in the return to the state of federal spending based on federal taxes paid, about 60 cents on the dollar. These complaints are universal, not limited to you.

E – How about what Haredi education produces relative to morality? In our schools there is virtually no drugs, sex or violence. There is not a yeshiva in the world that has metal detectors to check its students – how does that compare to the secular system of education?

SP – None of our schools have metal detectors either. And the yeshiva system even here still produces a decent product. The dropout rate in all religious communities is roughly the same. But – what is their educational product? Does the haredi system produce a student who can function in civil society?

      I find it fascinating that your straw man is always the “secular” system or world, as if there exists only this dichotomy: Haredi v. secular. But that is not true. There is an entire world of religious Jews who are neither Haredi nor secular (not that the Haredi world is completely monolithic). You certainly know it from your background, but you know it from Israel as well – the Hardalim, the Dati-Leumi, etc. – people whose lives fully implement the Torah system in the real world, not just theorize about it in the Bet Midrash. I have always assumed that one of the great fears of the Haredi establishment about military service was not the exposure to secular culture but the exposure to Torah Jews who know how to learn Torah, perform mitzvot, fight in G-d’s wars, build a country, get an education, etc. – i.e., a balanced life. That life undercuts the Haredi argument that mandates segregation as the only means to the preservation of Torah.

  E – From high school on, the men’s educational process is focused on Torah. Isn’t it amazing that people without college are nonetheless able to start and operate successful businesses of all kinds, from crafts (plumbing, electrical, contracting) to retails to finance to real estate to start-ups. All without having studied Shakespeare or art history – without knowing how many wives King Henry 8th divorced or beheaded – and without having had to subject themselves to the looseness, depravity and coarseness of midos one finds with such ease on a college campus. But the Israeli Government feels it knows better and wants to impose its standards on our time-tested curriculum. Not a culture war? Really?

I am an investment banker and have raised over 50 million dollars for Israeli companies supporting hundreds of secular families. Nearly all the owners of those businesses are secular — They love me and I love them ( I don’t hide my peyot) certainly not in Teaneck. My Partners supports hundreds if not thousands of Israelis in construction, law, accounting, security, insurance, architecture and engineering, to name a few, via his real estate business. I have another close friend who moved his family here to open a baal teshuva yeshiva that is one of the largest employers in its neighborhood. We all pay taxes here. All of my friends and peers are busy with tzedaka projects – many if not most not content just to give money, but insistent upon giving time and effort and talent as well. All this in addition to commitment to regular Torah learning. Is that really a hateful existence?

SP- Here is the crux of the issue. You are not typical, obviously. They are many Haredi businessmen, many successful Haredi businessmen. But you know they are not typical of Haredi society, unless you are asserting that what is perceived as the endemic poverty in the Haredi world is a “secular” myth . I also don’t care how many wives Henry VIII (or for that matter, the VII) had – but I do care that in today’s world, children learn English, math, science, writing skills, even Jewish history and Jewish philosophy. An eighth grade knowledge of those subjects is as embarrassing as an eighth grade Torah education (or, as it might be, a fourth grade education).

   It is interesting that Haredim in America have never embraced the value system of Haredim in Israel, at least not until recently. Some went to college, some didn’t (there are even online colleges today for which you almost never need to leave home) – but all knew they would have to support families someday, and not through starting chesed organizations. An educational system that produces bnai Torah, good citizens (I’ll add – Ahavat Yisrael of all types, Ahavat Eretz Yisrael, and a willingness to fight for it as Haredim did in 1948) who can support themselves and help others would be embraced by all, even the secular. No one intends to produce violent, depraved, backwards, drug-addled, parasitic, drunken miscreants. Not all secular schools produce the latter, like not all haredi schools produce the former. That’s reality.

E – How about the families that you so revile where the husband is learning in Kollel? Let’s check a few facts here. The government used to help with $200 a month; Lapid and Bennet cut it to almost nothing!  The average hareidi family has about 8 children. We pay 18% vat tax on all we consume. Do you really think these families live on Government handouts? In these families the wives are all working (did you assume they were home redesigning their kitchens, eating bon-bons, shopping at our equivalent of the Short Hills mall or Nordstroms and filing their nails?). Do you have a similar problem when one of your secular friends has a wife who works and the husband stays home? I never heard anyone ever complain about that concept. So why is it that a family that is willing to forego all the pleasures of the olam ha-gashmi to pursue a self-sacrificing spiritually oriented existence voluntarily, supported in dignity by a working wife who believes in the primacy of Torah study be so reviled by you?

SP – I don’t revile anyone! Chas Veshalom! I love all Jews. But I still fail to see why the government – someone else’s tax dollars – is obligated to support someone in kollel. Find a Zevulun, a private benefactor. Similarly, I fail to see why the government – someone else’s tax dollars – would be obligated to support a talented artist, poet or basketball player. Is it the same? Of course not, based on my value system. But the Tel Avivian who has not yet been attracted to Torah has a different value system. Don’t tell me – tell him why he has to pay for yours.

    Better question: how many extra hours should my children in Israel work every week in order to support those who wish to learn full-time? And what if they would rather use those extra hours to learn Torah themselves? Why is that option foreclosed?

    I also have no secular friends, not that I’m proud of that! Then again, I don’t get out much. But I do think it is troubling if a wife works to support her husband and the family. Ultimately, as we know from our world, it causes real shalom bayit issues. But I don’t judge. If it works for them, it’s fine with me. In fact, the only cases I know of secular families in which the wife works and the husband doesn’t (the Mr. Mom dynamic) is where the husband has temporarily lost his job or is incapable of working. But if a Haredi family chooses that – tavo aleihem bracha – but just don’t expect the rest of society to subsidize it.

E – With large families the Hareidim are massive spenders on consumption and investment in Israel.  Ask Osem or Pampers or Simalec. Or anyone in the world of real estate and contruction. As consumers we give back a multiple of what we “take”.

SP – I’m not sure your statistics are accurate. But this is: EVERYBODY pays VAT, everybody pays taxes, and everyone consumes. They just make different consumption choices. And I must be missing something: if Haredim are such massive spenders on consumption, real estate, etc., why is a cut in school milk money so devastating? Ha’ikar chaser min hasefer – something essential is missing from your argument.

E – All this is without any reference to the spiritual value of what we contribute to our society – which as a rabbi and learner I hope you might at least modestly appreciate……אפקורוס כגון מאן אמר ר”י כגון הני דאמר מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו א”ל אביי האי מגלה פנים בתורה נמי הוא שכתוב אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חוקות שמים וארץ לא שמתי

As far as the Rambam, please see the attached. There are almost 30 poskim listed who disagree with the Rambam, including the Mechaber in three places.  In addition, we can probably agree that the Brisker Ruv’s son, R’ Moshe’s son and R’ Aharon’s grandson know a thing or two about the Rambam  – yet they attended.

Like you, I grew up with Zionism uber alas. But we did not hate the Haredim . I told a friend of Bennett’s ( to paraphrase Golda Meir) that I can forgive him for stealing our money, starving the avreichim, and supporting legislation to jail our kids … but I can’t forgive him for causing me to hate him‎ and causing you to hate me.

SP – I appreciate everyone’s Talmud Torah. I just don’t genuflect before the altar of those who insist that Haredi Talmud Torah is superior, nor to those who think their Ahavat Yisrael is superior. Every person – groups – has strengths and weaknesses.

    One of the bigger mistakes of the Haredi world is projecting the sense that their Judaism is more authentic than everyone else’s and therefore deserves the support of others. It is not. The Haredi world has strengths and weaknesses like any other group. Indeed, there are many things that the Haredi world can teach other Torah Jews and many things that the Haredi world needs to learn from other Torah Jews. But the Haredi world is trying to recreate something that never existed, and thus has run into problems.

     And – whatever you, I or others might say – the Rambam is still the Rambam. People do disagree with the Rambam, but they haven’t refuted his basic idea, which has turned out to be spot on: Kava me’or hadat. People have lost respect for the Torah lifestyle because of the Haredi estrangement from general society, not grown in respect. And, obviously, there are many Rabbanim who have an interest in keeping the status quo, or fear a public dissent from it.

    But, there was a time when Haredim understood this as well. In last Friday’s Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Stewart Weiss, whose son Ari hy”d fell in battle while protecting Jewish life, including this observation from post-1948:      “Indeed, no less a figure than the late Grand Rebbe of Gur – a Chassidic leader far ahead of his time – appealed to the yeshiva world to break down the wall of separation and allow yeshiva students to do their fair share in “giving back” to the nation. If they did not, he warned presciently, they would eventually provoke major animosity and resentment from the general public, resulting in a terrible Chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. Tragically, the Rebbe’s plea was rejected, the number of yeshiva exemptions grew exponentially, and the problem was left to simmer and boil. Now, the polarization and hatred it has created has divided our nation and been laid bare for all to see.

   I tell you that it is critical not to hate. I don’t hate Haredim at all, although I do feel sorry for many who – as they have told me – feel trapped. And you should not hate anyone, r”l, especially Naphtali Bennett. I have met him several times, he even has some good Teaneck roots. He is a wonderful person, very dedicated to Klal Yisrael. He really believes he is helping Haredim (I think he is right) – not just with the army but with entering the work force. He knows – you know – the present economics are unsustainable. The people who were paying for it no longer want to pay for it, secular and religious. And you know as well that permanent exemptions from army service or employment are also not sustainable. That is the society in which you live. Do not forget that all this came about because the High Court ruled that the current system was inequitable and therefore unlawful. Even the present Shaked Bill which Haredim so revile might not pass muster! But the status quo could not go on much longer, as the Gerrer Rebbe anticipated.

E – In the world of Israeli kiruv (just like the global phenomenon) there’s an amazing reality: virtually all who become frum — and there are well over 100k — become chareidim (of one form or another). They all grew up interacting with the datei Leumi, yet when push comes to shove, that’s not the lifestyle and community they choose. How odd for such a highly educated and unbiased (other than the extreme anti-Haredi bias they are raised with) to choose such a different way of life (one that will surely bring them no prestige or power or connections). How strange that they choose to join what you view as a cult of takers and uncaring, non-contributing families and individuals. Somehow the appeal of authentic and committed Torah and Yiddishkeit weighs more than the alternative.

The official prayer for the army? We love the soldiers and pray for them every day. In times of stress and war our shuls are full of people davening and saying Tehillim and personal prayers. We also cry when they fall, and Hatzola and unfortunately Zaka are there to pick them up! We don’t need the nusach of the chief Rabbi; we have Chazal אחינו כל בית ישראל……

With love,

Ephraim

SP- I think you are right about the kiruv statistics (not in our part of the world, of course). That is because the cloistered life poses fewer challenges, and I can see why a baal teshuva would want to sever any connection with his prior life even if not all do. But the balanced life appeals to others – not violations of halacha, r’l, but just a comfort level interacting with the rest of society.

   Your last paragraph is the most troubling, because in your entire response, you neglected to address one key point: the rejection of army service. That is bad enough – haacheichem tavou lamilchama v’atem teshvu po? – but the reluctance to say the accepted tefila for Tzahal wins no friends in the dati-leumi community. Must you be different just to be different? Are you still fighting Herzl? Is tefila really a substitute for actual participation in national defense or national service?

  If so, perhaps then you can relate to this analogy: the dati leumi community (we’ll try to get the seculars involved as well) will offer heartfelt tefilot in our own way and of our own composition for the material success of the Haredim. You just won’t get any money from the government and the society you so disdain. That would be too practical.

With blessings for continued success, your friend who loves, values and respects you,

 Steven Pruzansky

An Exchange

Earlier this week, I was contacted by an old friend who now lives in Israel, part of the Chareidi world. He sent me his thoughts, and I responded, and the exchange is reproduced below, with minor editing. I have deleted the friend’s name.   -RSP

6 Adar II 5774, March 8, 2014

Dear Steven,

Ahead of the mass gathering of Torah true Jewry scheduled to take place tomorrow in Manhattan, I’m reaching out to you, our brothers in America, to share with you the sad truth: here, in the State of Israel, Torah Jewry is subject to religious persecution.

To classify Torah students as “criminals,” subject to imprisonment, is only the latest and most absurd of anti-chareidi laws enacted recently by the government. In addition, they have  drastically cut education and welfare budgets, aiming to choke our yeshivos and schools, and even our individual religious freedoms, so prized by Americans and citizens of democracies worldwide.

Under the deceptive mantra of ‘sharing the burden’ the government is responsible for a wave of unprecedented incitement against chareidim, thereby splitting the nation. It is no secret that the objective of conscripting Torah scholars is a thinly disguised attempt at social engineering.

Is it conceivable that a Jewish government in Israel is trying to prevent its citizens from living Torah-true lives in the tradition that their ancestors for generations were moser nefesh for?

As you prepare to gather to offer heartfelt tefillos tomorrow, please remember that the train of persecution of lomdei Torah has already left the station and that there is no doubt that it is more difficult to stop a train that is already moving than to prevent it from leaving. But we must not despair and have to try to raise the alert, and to make all possible efforts to change things, before the train picks up speed. Because the route this train is heading towards leads directly to the abyss.

We know that the heart of Torah-true American Jewry beats together with its brethren in Eretz Yisrael, and senses that the danger to Torah observance in the Holy Land is a danger to the entire Jewish world. We believe that you recognize that learning and living Torah in Eretz Yisrael in holiness and purity is the basis for the existence of Torah true Yiddishkeit in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora.

And therefore, grasp onto the craft of our fathers, and plead to Hashem that He protect and send salvation to all those who seek His yeshuos, so that shomrei Torah and lomdei Torah throughout will be able to continue to draw upon the eitz chaim, the tree of life, of the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel, that sustains us all.

Sincerely,
(Name deleted)
Your brother in Eretz Yisrael

———————————————————————————–

Dear ———:

It is great to hear from you and I hope you and the family are well, but I must part company with you on this issue, and I will not be participating in the rally today. In fact, I denounced it yesterday – even noted (based on a Midrash at the beginning of Vayikra) that there is such a concept of a “Talmid chacham she-ein bo da’at.”   Here is why:

Chareidim make a mistake in thinking that only the Lapid-led diehard seculars have a growing contempt for them. The dati-leumi community is also increasingly hostile, because they sense – to me, accurately – that the Chareidi community is causing hatred for Torah. It is impossible to explain to – take, for one example – my nephew, who learned in Hesder and completed his army service, why his Talmud Torah is somehow inferior to that of Chareidim. It is not. Perhaps his Talmud Torah is the same, but the Charedi world’s “Nosei b’ol im chaveiro” is completely absent. That deficiency in Ahavat Yisrael is glaring, noticed and the reason why the society at large no longer tolerates it.

It is unconscionable that there exists in the Chareidi world this idea that work and army service are beneath them, and that the rest of society which they hold in contempt must work and pay higher taxes in order to support them in order that they should sit and learn. I too would love to sit and learn, and have someone support me, but that is not the system that Hashem set up. Odd, indeed, that the Rambam’s clear statement (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10-11) is ignored, if it is even taught. But when he speaks of “kavah me’or hadat,” that is exactly what has happened, and solely because the Chareidi world has not fully embraced the Torah. That construct of the Chareidi world as practiced today is unprecedented in Jewish history.
The Chareidi lifestyle as currently constituted is unsustainable. Everyone knows it, even their gedolim know it – but many are afraid to speak the truth for fear of physical attacks or peer reproach. They are literally trapped in a different era, using the language of Czarist Russia, Antiochus and Purim to describe a government that is the biggest financial supporter of Torah in the world. That is not leadership. I fully endorse the notion of a Yissachar-Zevulun relationship for as long as the parties agree, but no Yissachar has the right to force someone else – the whole society? – to be a Zevulun. That is simply not part of the Torah system.

What is wrong with all Jews participating in national defense? Or, if for whatever reason Chareidim feel they cannot, what is wrong with even Chareidim doing national service – helping out in nursing homes, teaching Torah in deprived communities, even doing chesed work for a year or two? That is known as giving back to society. One can’t only take; one must give as well. Certainly, as Rav Dessler emphasized repeatedly, giving – not taking – is the essence of the righteous person. When I learned in Israel, I thought it quite natural to participate in the national defense. I didn’t necessarily enjoy – at the time – the loss of sleep because of overnight patrols, but I am happy I did it, and only benefited from it, even in terms of Talmud Torah. How can Zaka take time off from learning to pick up the pieces, r”l, after a terrorist attack? Why can’t the same people work to thwart the terrorist attack in the first place?
Indeed, the army doesn’t really need Chareidi service as much as the Chareidim – for halachic and moral reasons – need it for themselves. But army service is mainly a portal into the work force, and that is key. The rate of employment in the Israeli Chareidi community is simply too low. The work force participation rate of adult males in Bnei Brak, Betar Illit, Kiryat Sefer, etc., is scandalous. Perhaps that is the true “war on Torah,” because the impression given that one cannot be a Torah Jew and a Talmid Chacham – and work and support one’s family – is an outrageous canard. All the Tannaim and Amoraim worked for a living. The greatest of our people – Avraham, Moshe, Yehoshua, David, etc. – all went to war when necessary. The Torah exempts four classes of people from battle: the scholar is not one of the exemptions, for Jewish wars especially require the participation of Talmidei Chachamim.

I am inclined to agree with Rav Rakeffet of Yerushalayim: “someone who thinks that he will not be a Gaon if he serves for a short time in the military will not be a Gaon in any event.” But it is unconscionable to expect the rest of society to support a lifestyle that is alien to them, and frankly, alien to Torah. Why would a “secular” Jew be attracted to a “Torah” lifestyle that purports to demand estrangement from the general society, a cloistered abode, a rejection of general knowledge, an inability to function in the presence of women, a disdain for gainful employment and self-support, etc.? It doesn’t seem very attractive, except for one who wants to escape from the world.

I don’t believe that Chareidim should be imprisoned for refusal to serve, nor that it will ever happen.  But, I note half in jest, what if it did? One can learn Torah full-time anywhere, even in prison. In fact, prison is ideal. Rav Meir Kahane hy”d wrote a 500-page sefer while he was in prison.  Every Israeli prison has a fully-stocked Bet Midrash, there are regular minyanim, Magidei Shiurim come every day, the food is mehadrin, there are no women present, no distractions at all. There are regular furloughs for Yamim Tovim. The government can support them anywhere. It’s just a change in venue. I don’t underestimate the hardships of prison life, but the Israeli jail is not the Gulag to which Jews were sent for learning Torah.

That they don’t proudly embrace the consequences of defiance means there is another factor at work: as you write, there are people who perceive the actions of the government as “social engineering” designed to “prevent Chareidim from living Torah-true lives.” I don’t believe that, and the extent to which the Charedi world has alienated natural supporters and lovers of Torah should be worrisome to them. But anyone who does believe that should not insist that the government subsidize that lifestyle. I personally oppose incarceration or criminal penalties, but I also would grant no government benefits at all to people who refuse to perform any type of national service. The Chareidi educational system is also in disarray; I do not see why the government should support any school system that does not educate its students in a way that will enable them to function in society. Is that really a “Torah-true” life? I think not.

One last point, which goes to the heart of this: I have never heard of a Chareidi shul where the tefila for Tzahal is recited. Forget the tefila for the medina – but why wouldn’t they say the tefila for Tzahal? I have asked this question many times to Chareidi acquaintances, and mostly been met with stunned silence and occasionally with a muffled “the Rebbe…the Rosh Yeshiva… has never told us to say it.” It is simply inexplicable, a lack of derech eretzhakarat hatov, and common sense.

What a Kiddush Hashem it would be if the Charedi leadership announced today that, it still rejects conscription, but henceforth it will daven for Tzahal every week! That would go a long way to easing tensions, perhaps not with Yair Lapid and his cohorts but with the Dati-Leumi Torah community that you are rapidly losing.

I love all Torah Jews and I hate all distortions of Torah. The Chareidi Torah world has so much to offer, and I refuse to accept this prevailing notion that they need to treated like handicapped children with special needs, that they are unable to live and interact with normal people. I reject that. I will treat them like precious Jews but like adults: those who are poreish min hatzibur should not be shocked or disheartened when the tzibur is in turn poreish from them.  The Chareidi world, on some level, perceives itself as a self-contained community that can insulate itself from the greater society which it holds (at least in some aspects, understandably) in contempt. But then don’t be surprised when that same society – which feels the contempt – then decides it no longer wishes to subsidize or indulge that community.

With friendship, all blessings and wishes for nachat v’chul tuv,

Steven Pruzansky

Your Brother in America

—————————————————————————————————-Those who wish to hear a powerful, passionate, and heartfelt sicha on this matter, please listen to Rav David Milston, RoshYeshiva of Midreshet Harova in the Old City, and his reaction to the rally in Israel.  Listen at:


AIPAC Reflections

    The AIPAC policy conference, simply put, is a tonic for the battered and bewildered supporter of Israel – battered by the incessant hatred of Jews and the Jewish state that emanates from the Arab world and its fellow travelers in the West, and bewildered by an Israeli government that is seemingly rushing headlong into another catastrophic signing ceremony that will be a another prelude to another wave of retreats, terror and mayhem.

     First, the good news. It is an incomparable experience to stand with more than 14,000 lovers of Israel – Jews of all stripes and backgrounds, and non-Jews of all races, creeds and ethnic origin. AIPAC is remarkably successful in bridging gaps. In truth, it was not at all surprising to see rabbis of three Jewish “denominations” standing on stage together and each describing his warm feelings towards Israel. Despite all the rhetoric, we are accustomed to Jews uniting in times of communal danger. What was shocking (!) was how natural it was for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md) standing together, each explaining the vital American interest in a strong US-Israel alliance and pledging to promote and strengthen that alliance even more in years to come.

    Watching them, I could not think of another issue facing Americans today on which Republicans and Democrats make common cause, work in tandem, and do not seek to undermine the other. Indeed, each lauded the bipartisan nature of the US support for Israel – a support that has always been rooted in Congress. Presidents come and go, and some are more and others are less supportive of Israel. But Congressional ties to the Jewish state have been robust for decades. And I wondered, why? Why, in fact, do Americans support Israel over the Arabs by margins of five or six to one?

Contrary to our enemies’ propaganda, it is neither the Jewish vote (which is miniscule to begin with, and overwhelmingly Democratic) nor Jewish money (Arabs have much, much more, and spend it) that sway the American public and political class. It is, rather, the Jewish soul – the spirit of the people of Israel. And AIPAC did a wonderful job in conveying this message.

Throughout the Convention Center, one did not have to go far in order to see pictures and accounts of Israeli teams throughout the world on a variety of rescue missions and other acts of compassion. There was a large map that depicted the dozens of countries across the globe (some that do not even recognize the State of Israel) that have been the beneficiaries of Israeli aid during catastrophes and natural disasters. Israeli rescuers are often the first on the scene, saving victims, building hospitals, stabilizing food and water supplies, and thwarting the spread of disease. Other groups of Israelis have traveled the world to teach more efficient uses of water to areas that are parched and where drought is a familiar though unwelcome visitor.

And, of course, the technological innovations that Israelis have brought to the world are unparalleled. The latest on display – and already in use by law enforcement across the US and the world – is a device that allows people literally to see through walls (brick, steel and otherwise) and facilitates hostage rescue and the capture of any band of malefactors. And those evildoers and Jew-haters who advocate a boycott of Israeli products should immediately stop using their computers and EZ-passes, and order their physicians to abstain from treating them with any of the Israeli medical devices that have transformed health care. That’ll teach ‘em!

Why does Israel attract such support from Americans? Because at the end of the day Israelis are good people who are trying to make the world a better place. And all the best propaganda that money can buy will not change that. AIPAC, though, has a critical role in publicizing these good deeds – the latest, rendering medical care to victims of the mutual atrocities in Syria – that would otherwise be suppressed by the forces of hatred.

Of course, being “good” has its downside, and it is disheartening to hear otherwise intelligent and sophisticated people in the political class speak of “peace and prosperity” in the Middle East as if it were just a few more Israeli concessions away. The “good” often have a hard time seeing the “bad,” and certainly acknowledging the permanence of “bad.” But it is a reality, and from the hi-tech entrepreneurs to the parade of politicians spouting clichés and platitudes, the concerns for Israel’s future are justified. Israel is only country in the world –and probably ever –that always seems to be either five minutes away from complete redemption or five minutes away from complete destruction. The ge’ula and the churban seem equally plausible prospects. What is needed is strength, courage, convictions, belief in the narrative of Jewish history and the unfolding destiny of the Jewish people. The temptation to give up so close to the end is tantalizing.

The German military strategist Karl von Clausewitz wrote: “Given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage than audacity.” One sees this unfolding today in US foreign policy where timidity now rules the roost, under the guise of a people tired of war. The Romans said – and this corollary has yet to be repealed – Si vis pacem, para bellum, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” America’s strategic decline and shifting alliances spell short-term trouble. Obama’s America is not feared by its enemies and not respected by its friends. Obama’s naïve world view was summarized by his reaction to Putin’s seizure of the Crimea, when he trumpeted its illegality and then suggested that “Putin’s lawyers must be telling him something different.” Does he really believe that Putin consults lawyers before acting? Only a community organizer would even think in those terms, much less articulate them.

Such gullibility is harmful to America but it could deadly for Israel. Israel is on the verge, allegedly, of marching down the road to two inconceivable outcomes: first, that it can rely on the United States to halt the Iranian nuclear weapons program. It is simply inconceivable that the US will act militarily against Iran in an Obama administration, like it is unimaginable that Iran will agree through negotiations to cease the development on its own. Iran is successfully playing the same game it has played in the past. The suspension of sanctions in exchange for temporarily delaying uranium enrichment allows it to sufficiently recover from the effects of the previous sanctions to be able to weather the next economic storm when it ends negotiations on its own terms. Israel is really on its own in dealing with Iran.

Second, it is inconceivable that Israel would agree to surrender more land, establish another Arab state on its own land and emasculate its defenses in the Jordan Valley. It is ludicrous. It is implausible. But is it happening?
Providence granted the Israelis a respite from the expected pressures of the White House by distracting Obama and Kerry with the problems in Ukraine. But in a world of free choice, it is up to the Israelis to change the dynamic, be audacious, rely on itself, and not kowtow to US pressure when it comes. Listening to John Kerry’s speech at AIPAC before he immediately flew off to Kiev was an eye-opener. He really believes, apparently, that partitioning the land of Israel and creating a hostile state will solve the problems once and for all – that peace and brotherhood will descend on the Holy Land. And he believes that against all reason, against all odds and against all the available evidence, historical and current.

So, too, Netanyahu believes that his winning strategy will be to get the so-called “Palestinians” to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” If they say those magical words – “Jewish State” – then surrender will be at hand. He doesn’t think they will, but that is the height of foolishness. Once again, Israel will be in a position of transferring objective and valuable assets – its land – in exchange for words – words that might not be sincere when uttered and that can be retracted once the concessions are pocketed. Is he counting on the Arabs’ hatred of Israel being so irrational that they will not be able to utter those words? What a fool’s bargain that would be. If they had any sense, they would say those words, and say it yesterday.

They are just words. In his Epistle to Yemen, the Rambam advised the beleaguered Yemenite Jews who were being persecuted and forcibly converted (on pain of death) by the Muslim natives to say the Muslim declaration of faith – just say the words and do not allow yourselves to be martyred. It’s just words. The so-called “Palestinians” can also say words. So what? Deeds and attitudes matter more.

Few people in the world give a better speech than Israel’s prime minister, even if every word has been heard before. But does he really believe what he is saying? Is he a cunning genius – or too clever by half?

A right-wing journalist asked me the following question: If AIPAC is pro-Israel, how can it support a Palestinian state? I answered simply that AIPAC supports the Israeli government; it is the current Israeli government that supports a Palestinian state.

And therein lies the problem, and the hazardous road ahead. But that road will be infinitely smoother with strong and faithful leadership in Israel backed by a strong and faithful leadership in the United States, especially including the good people at AIPAC.

 

Being Really Smart

      How should a shul respond if a member suddenly pulled out the Wall Street Journal (illustrious paper that it is) during davening and began reading it? How would fellow members react if someone began playing Scrabble during Chazarat Hashatz – assuming that the observer was himself not playing?

      The distractions during tefila (prayer) have certainly changed over the years. I remember when a beeper was a novelty, but such was limited to potential medical emergencies. (Come to think of it, I remember as a child seeing one fellow actually read a newspaper in shul, during the Torah reading!) As we all know, the scourge of today’s shul has long been the cell phone whose chimes, in many places, are regularly interspersed with the cadences of tefila. Many of the chimes are recognizable – generic, factory-installed sounds; others are majestic (Beethoven’s Fifth), some are uplifting (Beethoven’s Sixth – the Pastoral Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee) and some are inspirational and nationalistic (Hatikvah). But all, in the context of the davening are, frankly, inappropriate and annoying.

      This problem transcends all boundaries – religions, denominations within Judaism, as well as within Orthodoxy. Far be it from me to speculate as to where the challenge is worse – Shtiebel, shul , Young Israel, ModO, etc.  It is pervasive. Fortunately, in our shul we have succeeded in eliminating this bane of the modern mitpallel almost entirely through repeated reminders and gentle admonitions, such that the occasional offender is almost always an unknowing guest or a visiting meshulach, or (rarely) a regular who forgot he was carrying his phone with him. In fact, we encourage people to leave their phones at home or in their cars, as they really have no acceptable use during davening.

       But fast forward to today’s smart phone that not only functions as a telephone but also as a siddur, chumash, newspaper, joke book, encyclopedia, Scrabble game and window to the infinite world of knowledge and nonsense. It does everything but daven for you, although I am sure that App is in the works. How should we relate to this modern contrivance which has both sacred and profane uses?

Our Sages went to great lengths to ensure that we would be able to maintain kavana (concentration) during davening. Reciting words by rote and without attentiveness is compared (by Rabbenu Bachye in Chovot Halevavot, Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh, Chapter 3) to a “body without a spirit.” It is lifeless.

Thus, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 90) notes that, if possible, we should daven facing a wall, with nothing or no one in front of us. We should never daven in back of someone wearing bold, bright-colored clothing – it is too distracting. The Rema adds that, for the same reason, we should not even pray from a siddur that has pictures in it.

And not only that:  the Shulchan Aruch (OC 96) contains further admonitions: “When a person prays, he should not hold in his hand tefillin, nor a sefer from the holy books, nor a full plate, nor a knife, money or a loaf of bread, because in all those cases he is focused on not dropping them, and his concentration will be disturbed and nullified.” In the initial instance, this applies to the Shemoneh Esrei (the classic tefila) but it is extended as well (by the Pri Megadim) to Psukei D’Zimra and Shema, so essentially it applies to the entire davening. These laws are rooted in the Talmudic discussion (Masechet Berachot 23b) wherein Rashi states that all these activities “unsettle the mind.” The plate might break or its contents spill, the knife might fall and impale your foot, money might be dropped and lost, and a book will divert your attention. What should we hold in our hands? Nothing, except for a siddur, if necessary.

Anything that can be diverted for other uses, or whose primary purpose is not tefila, cannot be held during the davening. Anything that is valuable such that its potential loss or breakage weighs on one’s mind also cannot be held during the davening. The Pri Megadim adds another cogent reason for these limitations: it is not derech eretz (here meaning “courtesy” or “common decency”) to stand before eminent people holding extraneous objects in one’s hand, and certainly not while talking to them. How much reverent should we be standing before the King of Kings?

It is obvious that cell phones should be prohibited from all shuls. Phones are a means of communication with the outside world – the very world that we try to shut out for a few minutes several times a day so that we can concentrate on our relationship with the Creator. I have been left aghast in some shuls in which people actually carried on conversations after they answered their ringing phones – and nothing that was remotely life-threatening (just mundane business, and the like). Those whose jobs require constant access to a telephone (e.g., the president’s military aide who carries the “football” containing the codes that the president will need in order to authorize a nuclear attack on our enemies) are really exempt from public prayer. Certainly, a doctor’s life-saving work is held in esteem, and most know to keep their phones on “vibrate” so as not to disturb others. This is old news.

But this is new. Several months ago after discussing this topic in shul, I announced a ban (since then, thank G-d, strictly adhered to, for the most part) on the use of smart-phones during tefilla. A smart-phone, for all its wonders, is actually a holy book, a full plate, a knife, money, a loaf of bread – not to mention a telephone, a newspaper and a Scrabble game – all in one. It is everything that Chazal prohibited – valuable, breakable and a fount of distractions. Even if the phone element is turned off, the temptation is too great and the diversions are too accessible. The email beeps, the texts ring – and worse – it is the intrusion of the outside world that we struggle to keep afar during tefilla.

In a shul, the smart-phone has no place. Use a siddur! They are available in abundance.

That is not to say that the siddur/chumash, etc. apps have no value or use at all – on the contrary. Every smart-phone owner should have them (as if you didn’t know that!). They come in handy when a siddur is unavailable or where the lighting is so dim that a siddur can’t be easily read. It is also salutary even to see the siddur or Torah icon on the phone during the day, good reminders generally and especially when one is using the phone for other purposes.

By all means buy and use the holy apps! Just not in shul. I would hope and pray that other shuls will follow our lead. Rav Yosef Karo entitled that Chapter 96 of the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim “to preclude all nuisances so that one can concentrate.” There is no greater, more consistent nuisance imaginable. The ban seems obvious and long overdue.

In its proper place, the new technology can often benefit and enrich our lives. But we control the technology; it doesn’t control us. When it comes to shul and to davening, let it wait outside. Just for a few minutes. It will still be there when we finish, but we will be better off for the few minutes’ respite. And we will be able to daven in peace and quiet, and with a little more kavana.

 

 

The Biggest Shul in the World

     Is there a shul in the world where the Rabbi has absolutely no detractors? Not that I know of. Is there a shul in the world where every single person loves the Rabbi? Again, I plead ignorance; never heard of one. On some level, it is to be expected. Sometimes, the rabbi is at fault, but rarely so. Sometimes it comes as a result of a clash of personalities and philosophies, and even more frequently because the rabbi is cast as an authority figure and represents – in the eyes of the disgruntled – every authority figure he has ever reviled – teacher, parent, even G-d. It is as Moshe (who certainly had his share of detractors) and Aharon said to the Jews in the wilderness during one of their periods of discontent: “Your complaint is not against us but against G-d” (Shemot 16:8).

     Perhaps that will help explain the relentless assault underway against the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, from many quarters – usual suspects, those with complaints against the Torah and even some of my distinguished colleagues.

     Think of the State of Israel as the largest shul in the world. It is not so far-fetched; after all, its Parliament is called the Knesset. It has approximately six million members, and of all stripes in Jewish life, from one end of the spectrum to the other. Many people join together in common acts of devotion but otherwise have little to do with each other. They have their circle of friends, and people (some, they don’t even know) whom they cannot abide. And they have a Rabbi – in this case, two – and they treat them pretty much the way an average, decent shul treats its rabbi.

Many people love the Rabbi, and here as well. They revere the institution as well as the holder of the position. The Chief Rabbi is the national symbol of the religious establishment. He preaches the message of Torah – and Rav David Lau is indefatigable in his outreach, visiting several different communities almost on a daily basis. The rabbi brings the wisdom of Torah to current events, and ideally is consulted for the Torah’s perspective on a variety of national issues.

For sure, the Chief Rabbi is a posek as well, and decides questions of Jewish law relating to ritual matters (Kashrut, Shabbat, burial, etc.). He is responsible for the application of Jewish law in family matters, such as marriage, divorce and conversion. And, ceremonially, the Chief Rabbis are available during moments of national mourning and rejoicing, setting the tone, offering encouragement to the afflicted and assistance to the disadvantaged. He is a symbol, and of course, a person as well.

Most people appreciate the need for a Chief Rabbinate, even if they will only encounter it very infrequently, and usually for some ritual requirement or by attending a shiur.

And then there are the detractors, like in any shul, and there are just many more such people in a big shul of six million souls, even if the percentages are probably the same. And they are loud and frequently run to the media (sometimes, they own the media). They don’t like the Rabbi’s stance on issues (he is too Haredi or too modern). He is too stringent. He represents only a small segment of the population. It’s all about money. It’s all about politics and protekzia. It’s jealousy. Occasionally it is even the other rabbis who think they could be doing a better job. I could go on.

Personally, I think this “Israelis hate the Rabbinate” or “the Rabbinate is forcing people to hate Torah” trope is enormously overblown, and many people – rabbis included – unwittingly contribute to the perception by continuing to cite it as if it were verifiably true and beyond intelligent discussion (like global warming, as we suffer through this unbearable Northeastern winter). Do some secular Israelis hate the Rabbinate? Yes. Do some religious Jews hate the Rabbinate? Yes. Sure, any bureaucracy is a problem when it clashes with people’s desires and when it displays inefficiency.  But people also hate the Motor Vehicle Bureau, yet they don’t swear off driving as a result.

News flash: Do some American Jews also hate rabbis? Yes. They are called “clergy killers.” And the United States does not even have a formal rabbinate. Hmmm…there seems to be a pattern here.

To my way of thinking, estrangement from Torah causes hatred of rabbis rather than hatred of rabbis causes estrangement from Torah. And some people are estranged from Torah for reasons having nothing to do with rabbis, and everything to do with background, upbringing and secularism. Sure, there is an occasional exception – the mean rabbi who permanently turns people off from Torah, the abuser – although for some odd reason we never read about the mean doctor (or abusive doctor) who permanently turns off people from seeking medical care. Perhaps the doctors are not as quick to cannibalize their own as rabbis sometimes are?

Of course, we all know the polls and the anecdotes. We all have heard such stories. So what? The drumbeat in the secular press for years – with which some rabbis now compete very ably – is that ” the Chief Rabbinate is bad, bad, irredeemably bad! And they turn people away from a Torah, except for good rabbis who hate the Chief Rabbinate and whom the people love!”

With that incessant chorus, no wonder the polls report what they do. These days, it is counter-cultural and a sign of mean-spiritedness (if not lunacy) to support the Rabbinate. But the critics, assuming they are sincere, should recognize the inherent limitations of the system.  Even Rav David Stav said last week that you can’t accommodate every demand that people have. There is a halachic system. Not every desire that Jews have can be satisfied, not every wedding can be performed, not every person can marry whom he/she or both wishes to marry. Some of the unpopularity, such as it is, is built into the system. It is unavoidable.  Few rabbis have won friends (I know the exceptions!) by insisting on decorum during the davening  - but should a self-respecting rabbi abandon the quest for a dignified tefila because some people will be disenchanted? If so, then his semicha is not worth the klaf it is written on.

The truth is that we should stop beating  ourselves over the head and thinking that some panacea will bring secular Israelis back to Torah. The suggestions abound: ending Shabbat work prohibitions will bring Jews back to Torah, having public transportation on Shabbat will bring Jews back to Torah, stopping mandatory Kashrut in public institutions will bring Jews back to Torah, or allowing civil marriage will bring Jews back to Torah. Sure. But exactly what Torah will they be brought back to?

It has been astonishing to read otherwise intelligent people (even rabbis) write that “Israel is the only democracy in the world in which a person cannot marry the spouse of his/her choice.” Well, yes. That is because Israel is the only “Jewish State” in the world. What part of “Jewish State” is difficult to understand, and for how long could Israel credibly claim to be a “Jewish State” (and it says it right in Israel’s founding document, its Declaration of Independence, “Medina Yehudit” – a “Jewish State,” and several times, not a “Medina shel Yehudim,” a State of Jews) if Israel abolishes religious control over matters of personal status? It would certainly behoove Israel to convince its citizens (and some of its rabbis) that Israel is a “Jewish State” before it compels the “Palestinians” to do so.

What is even more astonishing is the yearning for American-style freedoms and liberties to be exported to the Jewish state. Is the American-Jewish product that vibrant, secure and untroubled that it is ready for export – or is it collapsing under the weight of Jewish ignorance, intermarriage and assimilation?

The Chief Rabbinate unfortunately suffers from another malady without a near-term cure. People in democracies generally hate government – same in Israel – and the Chief Rabbinate, as part of the government apparatus, suffers the same fate. Like any government entity, they could always improve on the delivery of services. Great. That is exactly what they are doing. So why should we continue to parrot the attacks of the past? Why don’t we join the chorus of supporters and encourage more reforms in terms of delivery of services? Why the constant demands for dismantling the system, the unremitting attacks on the holders of the office – like a shul Board meeting that never ends?

I do not doubt that part of it comes from people who simply are unhappy with the Torah as written and interpreted, but their real adversary is Above, and they will not be content until the State of Israel is de-Judaized and becomes a secular democracy.

Frequently,  people love the shul even if they have complaints about this or that aspect of the shul, and so it is in the biggest shul in the world. There are people that despise the “Chief Rabbinate” much more than they do the Chief Rabbis themselves. But the condemnations are beyond all reasonable bounds and reflect the multiple and even conflicting agendas of the critics.

Granted, rabbis under indictment or in disrepute (it happens) are not good for our business or our reputation, but a little perspective is in order. There is the occasional miscreant in every field and it is especially troubling in holy work – but such is life.  The stakes on this level should be clear: universal civil marriage will undo Israel’s claim to being a Jewish state, as much as abandonment of Shabbat.

We should stop blaming the Chief Rabbinate for the discontent with Torah in some quarters in Israel, like we should blaming rabbis for the fact that not every Jew is shomer mitzvot. Most people make their choices in life; in some rare cases, choices are made for them. Israeli society, to its credit, gave a lifeline to Soviet Jewry with all the blessings and challenges that brought, but its Socialist establishment also (mis-)educated an entire generation by robbing them of their Torah heritage. To lift the heavy weight of secularism off the back of a secular Israeli or Oleh from the FSU is arduous. It can take decades and even then might not succeed.

But to think we will succeed by diluting the Torah, by ending Hesder, by civil marriage, etc. is a fantasy that will become a nightmare.

All good Jews, and especially my rabbinical colleagues, have an important role to play. We can begin to undo the damage of the persistent negativity against the Rabbinate by becoming more supportive, not less so, and encouraging more Jewishness in the state, not less. For when Jews are habituated, even programmed, to speak negatively about the Rabbinate, they mean us as well.

Yes, even the good guys like us.