Category Archives: Contemporary Life

Stepping Down

After seven years as head of the Bet Din L’Giyur (the conversion court) in Bergen County, under the auspices of the Beth Din of America and the Gerus Protocol and Standards (GPS) adopted by the RCA in 2007, I have decided to resign from the Bet Din. I sent this missive to my supervisors:

“After much deliberation, I have decided to resign as Rosh Bet Din of the RCBC and step down from the Bet Din itself, effective immediately.

    It has been spiritually rewarding to serve in this capacity for the last seven years. I am extremely proud of the professionalism, sensitivity, integrity and fidelity to Halacha of the RCBC Bet Din that I and my colleagues established, and that successfully brought more than 100 gerei Tzedek tachat kanfei hashechina.

     In the current climate, with changes to GPS protocols contemplated, it is an appropriate time for new leadership.

    I wish you all continued hatzlacha.”

In the current cynical climate, I must append the following. Lest anyone gets the wrong impression, and at the risk of sounding silly and self-serving, suffice it to say that I am not resigning because of any scandal. There is no scandal, there was no scandal and (I hope!) there will be no scandal. There is no voyeurism, no embezzlement, no tomfoolery, no abuse, no drug use, no illegal gun possession, no pending arrest, no past arrest, no insensitivity or meanness of spirit, no unpaid parking tickets, and nothing untoward of any kind. It shouldn’t have to be said – no one is perfect, of course – but I try to lead a respectable life.

So why resign, especially as our Bet Din has been held to be a model of professionalism, efficiency, and faithfulness to Torah and derech eretz?

Well, it was and is. We adhered scrupulously to the protocols that were established, and I even served on the committee that established the standards that were then approved by the RCA Executive Committee. We never met any candidate (male or female) alone; indeed, I never did anything alone but always with at least two other colleagues. What happened in DC is simply unthinkable in our context: none of us had a key to the mikveh, we were always there with other women when a female convert was there. It never even dawned on us to meet a convert privately, put them to work in an office, charge them money for our services, meet them outside a formal session of Bet Din, and establish a social or financial relationship with them. Unthinkable – as were the other allegations pending in DC.

We always tried to treat each convert with the utmost sensitivity, sincerity and compassion. For sure, not every candidate became a convert. It is not easy to turn someone away, but fortunately, most of those who ultimately did not convert dropped out themselves. And that is quite understandable. It takes an enormous commitment – a transformation of one’s life – to become a religious Jew. They simply saw that it was not for them, or, on some occasions when there was (or was to be) a Jewish spouse, the Jewish spouse could not commit to living a Torah life.

Most converts – especially those who wish to marry a Jew – tend to exaggerate their readiness for conversion. (Only about 15% of our candidates were non-Jews in a relationship with a Jew.) Most of the other adults were simply non-Jews turned on to Torah. Occasionally they too would try to hasten the process but once they became aware of the breadth of knowledge required by a convert, they would accede. Many said, in one form or another, “I want to get this right. I want to be ready.”

That is what made the moment of giyur so special, so inspiring and so memorable. There were not a few times when the candidate (especially a woman) came to receive her name and our blessing after the immersion, and broke down in tears. Tears of joy and thanksgiving, not tears of abuse and maltreatment. I would share only with my colleagues letters, cards (some people actually put pen to paper) and emails of gratitude from many of our converts for the process, the way they were treated, for the immense spiritual pleasure they now enjoy. Those notes would be a welcome contrast to the open season against rabbis now in full force. I would share them, even anonymously, but for their self-serving nature.

So why resign?

The GPS system that has worked so well for us is about to change. No matter that the system worked quite well, making the conversion process difficult but eminently attainable to the committed, protecting rabbis against abuse by powerful layman (“Convert my future daughter-in-law or you’ll be out of a job!”), and standardizing the requirements for conversion. The latter is the most important consideration, because conversion is not a rabbinical contrivance to decrease the intermarriage rate or facilitate marriages but it is an entrée into the Jewish nation, G-d’s chosen people. It is not a personal, private act of the converter and the convert, but a formal and heartfelt welcome to the Jewish people. It is an act with profound consequences for our nation, and for the convert who now shares our destiny and fate.

We have our rules for citizenship like any nation does, and ours requires, first and foremost, Kabbalat hamitzvot (acceptance of the commandments). Living a full Jewish life requires study, and the policy was always that, aside from rare cases that required special consideration, the minimum period of study was one year. This immediately deflected from the rabbi pressure to perform a quickie conversion. The candidate was tested, informally but regularly, and was expected to be an observant Jew before immersion, the final stage. That always was a sticking point – in the past not every rabbi insisted on a full acceptance of mitzvot, preferring to turn a blind eye or deaf ear. Most candidates accepted the one-year period (the US requires a five-year residency requirement for citizenship!) and most understood that it was because conversion was a momentous act. One recent candidate explained that she first went to a non-Orthodox conversion school, and realized there were no expectations for her at all. Finish the class, and you’re in the club. She intuitively knew that could not be right, and came to our Bet Din.

Beyond that, candidates were always told that the pace of conversion was up to them, and it depended on two factors: knowledge and commitment. The more they grew in knowledge and the deeper in commitment, the closer they were to conversion. It was and is a reasonable approach.

On the other hand, once or twice candidates came and said that they are getting married in six weeks, and one party needed to convert. They were not observant, did not wish to be, and they were not accommodated. The serious among them, of course, postponed their weddings, waited, went through the system, and established Torah homes. Beautiful. As it should be.

The GPS system did not fail in DC; a person failed. That person allegedly breached every norm in our protocols. There is an impulse – quite common on one side of the political divide in America – that if someone breaks the law, what is needed is a restatement of the law, or another law. But if laws stopped criminals, there would be no criminals. We have plenty of laws.

The GPS system has always had its detractors, inside and outside the RCA, and those detractors are exploiting this crisis to change the system. (Those who have obsessively focused on the Rabbanut angle always missed the point, and Israel is now dealing with its own conversion crisis with issues regarding standards that are not dissimilar to ours.) Thus, the RCA has just appointed a committee “that will review its current Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses.” The committee consists of six men and five women, bolstering the trend on the Orthodox left to create quasi-rabbinical functions for women. Is there a role for women to play in “suggest[ing] safeguards against possible abuse”? Probably, although it really is self-understood. But what role can they play in “review[ing]” the GPS conversion process? That is halacha, minhag, psak – a purely rabbinical role.

There are members of the committee who have never liked the GPS guidelines, and do not follow them. There are very few members of the committee who were part of the original committee, which entirely consisted of Rabbis. Of course, they will have to water down the standards – they’ll call it a “revision” and an “improvement” – but I fear we will not be far from the old days of quickie conversions with little true commitment. That, by the way, still happens, and a few RCA rabbis acting outside the GPS system still perform those.

I will be delighted to be proven wrong. But I don’t think I will be, and therefore it is time to get out. I do not wish to be coerced to apply standards and guidelines that, to my thinking, may not comport with the requirements of Torah, and the makeup of the committee will almost ensure that outcome, however it is presented.

Much of the impetus for these changes is media-driven, as the RCA is trying to overcome the bad publicity of the DC scandal. I, for one, refused to be tarred with that brush. Let one person stand trial for his crimes. Jews have always opposed the notion of collective guilt. Why does every Bet Din in the country have to change their successful practices just because one person in one Bet Din allegedly violated every guideline in our handbook?

Additionally, it would be far better for the RCA leadership now to focus on its own potential mishandling of this matter, as the media has highlighted. I serve on the RCA’s Executive Committee but know almost nothing about the inner workings or decision-making of the RCA. Questions have been raised – in the media, especially – as to what did they know, when did they know it, whom did they inform and what did they do about it? I have implicit trust in my colleagues but those questions deserve answers.

Thus, I have no interest in serving in a system in which I have no input in the policies of that system, am not consulted on them, and might not agree with them. Why resign in a huff after the policies and changes are announced?! Be not a martyr after the fact, but a ro’eh at hanolad – anticipate what will happen. That is what I have done.

There is a second reason as well. Earlier I described the sheer majesty of the moment of conversion –the birth of a Jewish soul. For me and I’m sure my colleagues, that made all our efforts worthwhile – all the time we invested on a volunteer basis (we never earned a nickel from conversions), the nights and weekends that were devoted to helping people realize their spiritual dreams.

Now, the recent, voluminous and tendentious writings on conversion, the media testimonies of converts and the agenda of feminists would have us believe that conversion is all about sex, power and money. It is about evil men looking to dominate women and lusting after lucre. That is a vulgar distortion of reality. They have taken a sublime and pure moment and made it prurient and ugly. For sure, I blame my DC colleague for this situation, but also those who have exaggerated the problem and impute guilt and suspicion to every rabbi and Bet Din.

It needs to be said that the most uncomfortable situation I encountered in gerut was not the woman in the mikveh; she is concealed such that only the top of her head was visible. My most uncomfortable moments were when an adult male had to lie on a table with his private parts exposed so the Bet Din could witness the hatafat dam brit (a quasi-circumcision). And yet, no man – not a single one – ever complained about the process because each knew that it was a small price he had to pay (a requirement) for membership in an eternal people. A little perspective is in order. Not everything in life has to be vulgarized.

It is as if every rabbi is now a suspect, every rabbi needs a chaperone, and no rabbi can be trusted.

I have no interest in living as a suspect. I refuse to have my integrity and character impugned, nor to be defined in the public eye because of one miscreant.

Note that I have no illusions that this is some major moment in my life or anyone else’s. There is no earth-shattering news here. The heavens will not shed tears. I subscribe to de Gaulle’s adage that “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” I too will be replaced. Don’t cry for me, Evita Peron.

But we are living in a toxic environment for rabbis (generally; not locally where I live, thank G-d). The distrust is embarrassing and unbecoming. If I cannot be trusted to behave like a normal, decent human being, then I am unworthy of serving on a Bet Din. Let someone else do it. If people wish to presume that rabbis are corrupt and suspect, so in the words of our Sages (Masechet Sanhedrin 37b), “Mah lanu v’la’tzara ha’zot?” – that is to say, why do we need this headache?

Frankly, I am hard-pressed to understand why any non-Jew would convert to a religion whose spiritual leaders are so distrusted.

There is much to do, much that needs to be done, in the world of Torah and for the Jewish people. My days are full, thank G-d. I’m lucky to be able to make a contribution in other ways, foremost in the kehilla where I am privileged to serve, and look forward to doing so.

I leave conversion to others – others that I know serve the Jewish people with great devotion, distinction and honor, and do deserve the trust of those they serve.

   (P.S. I was just sent the NY Jewish Week’s article on this matter. Typically, it got almost every fact wrong. [Even the picture is 15 years old, but I thank them for publishing that.] I don’t consider myself Modern Orthodox; I see myself as part of every camp of faithful Jews and try to learn from all of them. I didn’t step down at all from the Beth Din of America, but just from the Beit Din of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. And I didn’t step down because a committee was formed including women. This decision was made before I knew the makeup of the committee. There are any number of rabbis whose participation would be equally unsettling.

   The main reason is, as I elaborated: the negativity associated today with conversion, and the cynicism and distrust fostered by so many (including the Jewish Week) towards the rabbinate. That has nothing to do with women.

Don’t expect a clarification.)    -RSP 

Update: They clarified, and naturally mad it worse. They corrected the text to read that I resigned from the RCBC Beit Din, not the Beit Din of America, but under the wonderful old picture that I am delighted they used, the error remains. Sheer incompetence.

They took out the Modern Orthodox label, and in the text called me a “high-ranking officer of the RCA.” I am not an officer at all, much less a high-ranking one. Does anyone do fact-checking there?

Chronologically they were correct that my decision “followed” the decision to include women on the committee, and my intentions were already known last week (before I knew who was on the committee), so much so that I was contacted and asked not to resign. So they still missed the gist of my argument, which I assume they stopped reading half-way through (once they found they could string together enough phrases to fit their narrative).

I haven’t talked to the NY Jewish Week in more than 15 years. And this is why. They are typical of the sordid state of journalism today. (I know, I know, never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.)

But then the “updated” version contained this doozy: “Pruzansky is still a member of the RCA’s Executive Committee, where he used to share the company of Rabbi Freundel before his arrest.” Huh!!   How is that for vicious innuendo?  “Share the company of…?  I join the meetings almost always by conference call. To that extent, every officer and every Executive Committee member “shared” the same “company.” What in the world is the point of that – except to plant the seed that somehow I am connected to the alleged malfeasance in DC? What a despicable outrageous slander!

They should apologize. But, I guess, to follow their way of reporting, both the Jewish Week’s publisher and Julius Streicher  (Der Sturmer) published newspapers that dealt a lot with Jews. Same business, I suppose. That’s bad company to be in.

And they wonder why I don’t return their phone calls. Simply despicable. And typical from one of the leading publications in the world of Orthodox-bashing and rabbi-bashing.

-RSP

World War IV

(This was first published earlier today on Arutz-7, http://www.inn.co.il.)

It has been apparent for years, vividly clear in the last year, and certainly before our eyes this past week: the world is at war with Islam. Seven years ago Norman Podhoretz wrote the book entitled “World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism,” but the need for political correctness has receded. Sure, sure, sure, there are Muslims who are against terror, who are decent people, etc.; there were also members of the Nazi Party that did not subscribe to all of Hitler’s excesses. The time has long past to play semantic games. Let the good Muslims stand up and re-capture their religion from those who they claim have perverted it. To date, the perverts are winning, and they consider those “good Muslims” infidels who should lose their heads.

In the meantime, civilization is reeling from the horrific blows this past week. A three-month infant girl was murdered in Jerusalem, mowed down by a Hamas terrorist. That terrorist was then extolled by Mahmoud Abbas as a “heroic martyr,” which should earn the “President of the PA” (whose term lapsed in 2009) additional visits from John Kerry, more money from the US and Europe, and more accolades from Jewish liberals – for whom all Abbas must be smirking with contempt. Yes, and he is the “good Muslim,” the “partner for peace.” Insane.

Newly minted Muslims showed their bona-fides by murdering two Canadian soldiers and seeking to go on a rampage in the Canadian Parliament building. Strange. Jewish converts seek to integrate into a Jewish community, study Torah, do the Mitzvot, and grow in piety. Muslim converts immediately seek to kill innocent people. Something is very wrong.

That is not to mention the dozens killed in suicide bombings in Iraq earlier this week by these same jihadists. It is no comfort that most victims of Islamic terror today are Muslims. Every single day some Muslim kills some innocent person somewhere in the world. At a certain point, one is left to conclude that the problem doesn’t only rest with radical Muslims, jihadist Muslims, Islamofascists, or other euphemisms we adopt to avoid the obvious truth. The civilized world is now at war, again.

We have seen something similar in the past: the generation of the flood. “And the earth became corrupt before G-d, and the earth was filled with violence” (Breisheet 6:11). Irony: the Hebrew word for violence is “Hamas.” Perhaps not an irony after all.

Rav Shlomo Ganzfried, the 19th century author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, asks in his commentary on the Torah, “Aperion,” why does the Torah emphasize that the world became corrupt “before G-d”? The generation of the flood was depraved, but before whom else would it become corrupt but G-d?

His answer is prescient and frightening: that evil generation’s degeneracy was revealed only to G-d – because they did not see themselves as corrupt. The immorality and debauchery of that society was so deep that they did not sense at all that there was anything wrong with their conduct. This was their “normal,” their way of life. These were the values they had. They worshipped their idols by pillaging, plundering, robbing, raping and murdering their fellow man. Their iniquities, to them, were acts of piety.

The Islamic world today (yeah, yeah, the radical/jihadi/fascist/Nazi division, all 150-200 million of them, to undercount) finds virtue in beheading , piety in homicide, and godliness in genocide. Their version of paradise welcomes murderers of infants, children, men, women, scholars and saints. Killing innocent people and causing mayhem across the globe are sacred acts, extolled and encouraged by preachers in their sermons. Theirs is a bizarre world where evil is good and malevolence is celebrated.

Rav Ganzfried continued such evildoers do not respond to criticism, reproof, rebuke, or appeals to morality or conscience. They have lost the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong. They can only be destroyed; hence, the Great Flood with which G-d destroyed the world and then recreated it.

The first three world wars (the Cold War was the third) were characterized by two critical factors: the determination of civilization to vanquish its foes and obliterate their sadistic ideologies from the face of the earth, and the rise of leaders (Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Churchill, FDR, Truman, Reagan, Thatcher) with the resolve and courage to see the wars through to absolute victory.

Sadly, and dangerously, both are lacking today. The American President prefers speeches and golf to leading the free world to victory; he may lack the will, the temperament and the conviction to do so as well. For example, he favors a negotiated settlement with Iran – a piece of paper that will leave the world on the precipice of a nuclear Iran and the catastrophe that heralds, but might earn him a second Nobel Peace Prize that will be even more hollow than the first. Europe is divided despite its union, is usually feckless, fears its growing Muslim population, and reflexively blames Israel for the rise of Islamic terror. Both the US and Europe see Turkey as an ally in this struggle, a sign of intellectual and moral decadence. Asia is mostly silent, and Africa is devastated by a plague.

Israel, too, sends mixed signals. Still the first and favorite target of Muslim terror, it has not yet firmly squelched the incessant talk of appeasement, concessions, unilateral withdrawals and a (phantom) peace process as the way to security and stability. The rise this week of a “diplomatic caucus” in the Knesset that favors negotiations and concessions to the aforementioned Abbas, lionizer of baby killers, shows that much of the Israeli public still labors under the illusion that World War IV will simply go away, because we really wish it to go away.

The Jewish people are being called upon – across the globe – to articulate the problem clearly and to rally the resources of the entire civilized world against this most brutish enemy. Israel must stand firm, certainly against appeasement but even against demands that it ameliorate its war on terror. A population that can produce people who drive cars into crowds, that randomly and wantonly stab, shoot, or stone people, is an enemy population. It should be defined as an enemy population and treated accordingly, if necessary, restoring the military rule under which Israeli Arabs were governed until 1966. If the denizens of Shuafat continue to destroy their light rail station, Israel should stop rebuilding it. Despite the good feelings engendered in all of us, enemy populations (Haniyeh’s daughter?) should not be treated in Israeli hospitals. And there is much more. An enemy is an enemy is an enemy. It cannot be wished away, especially as it desires to destroy the Jewish state. Those who do not desire to live in the Jewish state should take their fight elsewhere, and if what they want is to fight and die, there are many Arab countries from which to choose.

To date, what defines World War IV is the reluctance of the Western world to characterize or fight it as such. The longer the political and ideological ostriches maintain that stance, the longer – and deadlier – this war will be. The Jewish people – despite our size but because of our destiny and divine mission – are called upon the light the nations out of the darkness that currently engulfs them.

The Fall

    Our world, and the joy and serenity of Yom Tov, were rocked by the shocking news of the arrest of a colleague of mine. The allegations, even if false, are still dreadful. And if true, they are criminal and despicable – criminal, and thus to be dealt with by the law with all the penalties that pertain to such crimes; and despicable, because they encroached upon and desecrated one of the holy of holies of Jewish life, the Mikveh. The immediate reactions of anger, sadness and disgust were all justified.

As usual, the media misrepresent some essential aspects of the ramifications of this sordid matter. My colleague did not “set the standards for conversion in America,” that, presumably, would now be questioned. He chaired the committee that formulated policies and standards. It was a small committee, on which I also served. The policies and standards were deliberated at length, voted on and approved by the committee, and then by the RCA Executive Committee. They are not the standards of one person but of an organization, or, better, a classic and traditional articulation of the Torah’s standards for conversion. The standards remain valid and proper.

So do the conversions supervised by my colleague. The sensationalists looking to sow fear and apprehension in order to exacerbate this calamity are suggesting that past converts will now have their status questioned. Such speculations are unfounded. No rabbi converts a non-Jew as an individual but as part of a qualified Bet Din of three. If the only rabbis who could serve on such a Bet Din are those rabbis that are free of sin, then there would be no Batei Din and no rabbis. Absent proof of some tawdry arrangement between candidate and the conversion court, and assuming – as always – that the primary prerequisite of conversion was satisfied – a sincere acceptance of mitzvot – then all past conversions are valid.

He also did not “supervise the 13 conversion courts in the United States.” That is the responsibility of the Beth Din of America. Indeed, he has not served as chairman of the conversion committee for more than a year. Converts should rest easily and continue to grow in love of Torah and mitzvot.

Therein lies the biggest problem caused by the eruptions of immoral conduct by rabbis, which does occur from time to time. The expectation of moral perfection in the rabbinate is encouraging and in some ways appropriate but all – being human – will occasionally fall short. Granted, there are some sins that are more grievous than others and some failures are inexcusable – especially those in which the practice of the rabbinate is corrupted. I would love it if all rabbis (myself included) were above reproach – personally, I am troubled when rabbis talk during chazarat hashatz, not to mention other sins  – but that is an unreasonable benchmark that is often maintained by layman (and the media) to allow non-rabbis to rationalize their own misdeeds, along the lines of “if Rabbi ….can do that, then I can do this.”

That sentiment is more a hollow convenience that it is a rational reflection, as we are all judged by one standard – those set by G-d in His Torah. The piling-on that accompanies any clergy scandal coalesce those genuinely troubled by the desecration of G-d’s name and the shame brought to the religion, and those who use such outrages to rationalize their own lack of commitment, enjoy pointing out the hypocrisy of others (always others), or exploit the opportunity to declare that, if such could happen, there is no G-d, no Torah, no objective morality, etc. I sense that each person truly knows in which group he or she would be found.

The question that always lingers in every such case is…how?? How could a person drawn to G-d’s work stoop so low, fall so precipitously, and stumble so badly? It is a fair question, and I take comfort in the reality that it is an old question dealt with by our Sages when it first presented itself in ancient times.

Here are excerpts from the last chapter of my second book, “Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, 2009) that deals with the sins of the sons of Eli, the High Priest in the Tabernacle at Shiloh. Those sons were the leaders of a corrupt religious establishment, who in addition to seizing more of the sacrificial offerings  than they were entitled, also abused women.

The sons of Eli were more than greedy, and yet, their father was powerless to stop them. “And Eli was very old, and he heard all about what his sons were doing to all Israel, and that they would lie down with the women who gathered at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (I Shmuel 2:22). Our Sages dispute whether the sin depicted was literal or figurative. The Talmud (Shabbat 55b) insists that “anyone who says that the son of Eli sinned [in the grievous way described] is simply in error.” Rather, the sons of Eli “delayed the bird offerings” of women who had given birth and required this act of purification to resume normal marital relations with their husbands. The sons of Eli – the Gemara intimates that it was Chofni’s idea in which Pinchas did not participate but nor did he protest – trifled with the intimate relations between husbands and wives. They would arbitrarily permit one woman to return to her husband and compel a second to wait another day, for no valid halachic reason. Why would they engage in such strange, capricious behavior? It was a power play.

The two vices that can overwhelm susceptible clergymen are money and power, and both failings – the inevitable product of greed and arrogance – were dominant in Eli’s sons. They used the sacrificial order as their own personal kitty, and provided themselves with the legal justification for their theft. And they toyed with people’s private lives, essentially teaching an entire generation that Torah had no substance, depth or meaning, that its injunctions were capricious, and that its laws could be amended by the powerful and well connected as it suited them. Their society learned these lessons too well, and the Tabernacle – and the sons of Eli themselves – were doomed. In due course, the Philistines attacked, killed Eli’s sons, captured the Holy Ark of the Covenant (to the disbelief and horror of the Jewish people, who had wrongly perceived it as an invincible icon), and precipitated Eli’s own death when he heard the bad news; he “fell backward off his chair…breaking his neck and dying…” (I Shmuel 4:1–18). The Tabernacle in Shilo was destroyed after 369 years of existence.

Religious corruption – i.e., the corruption of religious elites – is endemic in the life of any religious society, if for no other reason than that the greatest among us are still flawed human beings. The combination of money and power is volatile and lethal – whether controlled by clergy, politicians or business moguls. To act as God’s agent is a heady experience, but also one fraught with personal temptation and peril. … Although it is unseemly and distasteful, to say the least, it is surely no reflection either on the Torah (which is acutely aware of human foibles) or on the vast majority of rabbis who serve God’s flock with distinction and faithfulness. It is disturbing and unacceptable, but not altogether shocking.

Indeed, the Navi made this very point in a subtle way. After each crime of the sons of Eli was depicted, the text notes: “And Shmuel was ministering before God, a lad dressed in a linen robe…. And the lad Shmuel grew and progressed and was good, both with God and with people” (I Shmuel 2:18, 26). For every son of Eli awash in a swamp of corruption, there is always a Shmuel who serves God in purity, and sparks a religious renaissance – and many, many more than one. And for every Jew who assumes he can obey the ritual law while cheating and conniving his fellow man – or who kindly serves others while oblivious to the God of Israel – there are thousands of Shmuels who are “good, both with God and with people.””

Clearly, it is not a new problem. That does not – and should not – lessen the shock when failures occur and are exposed, it does not excuse the commission of crimes or the violation of the rights of the innocent and pure. Would that such miscreants be uprooted from the clergy, if not from the Jewish people and the world entire!

But let us not expect perfection from anyone – just decency. And when the standards of decency are breached, there is a price that must be paid. Let us not once again make the mistake of confusing Judaism with Jews and using the sins of any person to justify the watering down of observance or belief. The Torah is perfect. No human being is. That is why there are human courts to deal with crimes and the Heavenly Court to deal with immorality.

In the wake of such scandals, we should all repent a little more, learn a little more Torah, do a few more mitzvot, and grow in our love and appreciation of our fellow man. Rather than roll around in the mud and gloat in the misfortunes of a human being, we should strive to be better people and let the proper authorities deal with the law, the alleged victims and the alleged victimizer.

Atonement

(NOTE: I again announce the publication in Israel of my new book, entitled “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.” It is written in English, available now in Israel and should arrive in the United States in a little over a month. Then, it will be available at fine Jewish bookstores. Even now, it can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com or Bn.com. Enjoy!)

My new book (have you heard??) is entitled “Tzadka Mimeni” to recall a specific incident in the Bible that had enormous and historic ramifications. It was the phrase Yehuda (son of Yaakov) used to admit his complicity in the affair with Tamar, who refused to publicly identify him as the father of her child but subtly indicated so to Yehuda. Rather than deny, obfuscate, change the topic or blame someone else, Yehuda admitted his role: “Tzadka Mimeni.” She is more righteous than I am. She is right. I am wrong. It is my fault.

That confession not only saved Tamar’s life and was an act of moral courage; it also qualified Yehuda, in the opinion of our Sages, to become the progenitor of the royal house of Israel. It was the response of a real leader, who knows how to take responsibility for misdeeds and failures and not pass the buck to others.

Those days are long gone, at least here in the United States.

Barack Obama’s inability to take responsibility for anything has become a running joke, albeit one without humor and incapable of inducing laughter. These cannot even be considered gaffes, as they are second (or first?) nature to him. The most recent example is almost run-of-the-mill. Asked whether he was surprised by the rise of ISIL, Obama shifted responsibility for being surprised to the equally hapless James Clapper, even if the intelligence services had, indeed, warned of ISIL’s rise more than a half-year ago. “It wasn’t me! It was him! He didn’t tell me!

It is actually worse than that. I receive a daily briefing on the military situation in Iraq and environs (you can too!) from the Institute for the Study of War, complete with maps and analysis. Note this:

       “ISW’s Jessica Lewis assessed in July 2013 that the group’s leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi literally aimed to declare an Islamic State: “When al Qaeda in Iraq last enjoyed this operational advantage, it chose to announce the birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and to appoint emirs and Shura councils in every province. This historical parallel places Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s recent announcements of his envisioned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the literal context of a deliberate campaign to establish governance over areas in Iraq and Syria.”

Check the date: July 2013. That was 15 months ago, at least six months before ISIL became better known in America, and 12 months before they started beheading American journalists.

In August 2013 (that’s over a year ago), ISW reported on ISIL’s territorial gains in Iraq and in Syria, a period that by pure chance coincided with the President’s annual Martha’s Vineyard location. What does ISW know that Obama doesn’t? Perhaps their analysts pay more attention to the intelligence coming their way than the President does to his. Perhaps the President should subscribe to ISW’s daily reports, although he would still have to read them.

But that is only the latest example. The hallmark of this administration has been a headlong flight from personal responsibility – on Putin’s military advances, the botched rollout of Obamacare, the corruption and dirty-dealing at the IRS, the Benghazi attack, the failures at the Veterans Administration, etc., and etc. to the etc. Events seem to swirl around this President and he is often, apparently, the last to know what is happening on his watch and the least able to influence the course of events. He will look dutifully somber, and promise justice, getting to the bottom, etc., but without much passion, engagement, or real acceptance of responsibility. That the White House admitted this week that they learned at the same time the press did that an armed felon rode in an elevator with the President and an unsuspecting Secret Service along for the ride is par for the course (pardon the golf reference). All agencies take their lead from the chief; it stands to reason that the Secret Service is as detached as the man they are sworn to protect.

Indeed, judging by customary reactions from this White House, George W. Bush is more responsible for the events of the last six years than Barack Obama.

This diffidence has had the effect of reducing Obama and the United States on the world scene. Part of this is intentional: Obama believes the dispatch of the American military across the world to be an “evil,” which he will not do absent an attack on the homeland, and perhaps not even then. He does not perceive the US military as a positive, virtuous force (witness the “coffee salute”) but rather as a symptom of the “bad America” that he was elected to transform. And part of this is simply the natural effect of the way Obama is perceived by other world leaders, especially American allies who are counting the days and holding their collective breaths until January 20, 2017.

This week, and once again, Obama was rebuked in private by PM Netanyahu, admonished to “study the facts and details” before reflexively criticizing Israel’s municipal building plans. Foreign leaders have the advantage of piercing the cordon sanitaire that Valerie Jarrett has erected around Obama to shield him from criticism. In private, they tell him exactly how they feel, even if in public, they pay him deference, out of respect to his office and especially to the historic role of the US in world affairs which will outlive even Obama’s efforts to strangle it. Obama, after six years, is unaccustomed to hearing criticism or even dissenting voices and is visibly uncomfortable with it. But it exists.

Netanyahu, who is a serious man and proved it again this week (he also remains Israel’s most effective spokesman when he is overseas), knows that Obama will do nothing about Iran’s nuclear program. The American president lacks both the will and a plan, and, like with ISIS, will offer desultory demonstrations of resolve and might, however ineffectual they are. (In the case of ISIS, an air show that will change nothing on the ground, and in the case of Iran, an empty agreement that will also change nothing.) Personally, I found Obama’s repeated references to the PM as “Bibi” to be disparaging attempts to belittle him; Netanyahu, presumably, had the grace not to refer to Obama as “Barry.” (But did Israel’s PM have to traipse from one treif restaurant to the next in NYC, of all places, and during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, of all times? There was a time when Israeli leaders had a little more Jewish pride, or at least, self-awareness.)

Incidentally, as noted here not long ago, Obama takes liberties with his conduct of “war” that he doesn’t allow Israel – e.g., bombing from the air (which he insisted that Israel not do in Gaza; for the most part, they ignored him). It is also fascinating how there seem to be no casualties from any US bombing run – neither terrorist nor civilian. Those really are smart bombs.

Leadership requires, first and foremost, the capacity to accept responsibility in a serious and sincere way. So does atonement. At the very heart of Yom Kippur is the recognition, stated again and again, that “I am responsible” for my sins. No one else is responsible. I cannot pound the chest of the person standing next to me, as tempting as that sounds. I cannot shift blame to others for my failures. I cannot hang my mistakes on the fellow who preceded me in my seat in shul.

If anything, the contrast between the modern world and G-d’s expectations for us is so stunning that it should force us to take a deeper, more introspective look at our deeds and misdeeds, our ambitions and objectives in life. Fortunately, Yom Kippur provides us the opportunity to do that.

Politics aside (this too shall pass), our inner world is the real world in which our moral perfection is sought and measured, and where it has true substance and makes an eternal difference. May we take such messages to heart, merit      G-d’s grace and forgiveness, and be inscribed for a year of life, good health, prosperity and peace.

The Mystery of the Shofar

(NOTE: I am happy to announce the publication in Israel of my new book, entitled “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.” It is available now in Israel and should arrive in the United States in a little over a month. Then, it will be available at fine Jewish bookstores. Even now, it can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com or Bn.com. Enjoy!

And Ktiva vachatima tova to all!    – RSP)

 

Is there an instrument in Jewish life that is as enigmatic, as mysterious, as the shofar? The other mitzvah items to which it is linked in halacha –  Matza, Succa, Lulav –  each have a defined purpose and a clear connection to the holiday on which they are used. But nothing in the Torah indicates why on Rosh Hashana day at this time a shofar has to be blown.

Rav Saadia Gaon famously filled in that gap, and offered ten reasons why the shofar is blown, ten allusions of the shofar that recall historical events, moments of national significance or personal inspiration. The best known are the first two – we blow theshofar as an act of coronation of God, on this anniversary of man’s creation; and we also blow shofar as a clarion to man to examine our ways and repent. But how can both of those ideas co-exist – how can the same instrument and the same notes used in a coronation of the King of kings speak to us as well? It almost seems disrespectful. Imagine the flourish that welcomes the president to his inauguration – and then imagine that those same trumpets have a secondary purpose – to call a meeting to order, to start a football game. Lèse-majesté. It would lose its magnificence. How do we get away with that?

When Rosh Hashana came in the year 1959, the Brisker Rav, Rav Velvel Soloveitchik (known also as the GRIZ), was critically ill; in fact, he died a week later, on Erev Yom Kippur. As he lay ill, he wondered “what will be?” And he took comfort in the famous Yerushalmi (Masechet Rosh Hashana) that we always ponder this time of year:   “It is customary that a person who is being judged by a human court is worried, wears black, grows out his beard, and fears for his future. But the Jewish people – while the Jury is out – wear white, and shave, and eat and drink and rejoice, knowing that G-d performs miracles for us.” The GRIZ asked: how do we know? What is the source of this confidence?

He answered by quoting from one of the well known piyutim of Rav Shlomo ibn Gabirol, “so even if You slay me, I will still yearn for You. If You seek [justice] for my iniquities, I will flee from You towards You.” How does one run from G-d and towards G-d at the same time? They would seem to be polar opposites.

What a beautiful phrase – “Evrach mimecha eilecha” – “I will flee from You towards You!” It is a beautiful description of faith and bitachon and what has sustained Jews for millennia, that gives us strength and succor in difficult times, both nationally and individually. When we run from G-d, the only refuge we have is to run towards G-d. It is the natural state of the Jew.

It is astonishing – and inspiring – that every tragedy of the Jewish people has been followed by a period of spiritual growth and wonderment that was unanticipated before. The bondage in Egypt was followed redemption and the gifts of Torah and the land of Israel; the destruction of the first Temple  was followed by the systemization of the Oral law, and that of the second Temple by the publication of the Mishna and later the Gemara. The Crusades were followed by the era of the Baalei Tosafot and the Rambam, the Expulsion from Spain by the return to Israel and the glory days of Tzefat – the Ari  and Rav Yosef Karo – the Chmielnicki massacres by the rise of Hasidut and the eternal contributions of the Vilna Gaon, and the Holocaust by the re-establishment of the State of Israel.

When trouble comes, and the Jew wants to flee, we run from G-d – and towards G-d at the same time. Wasn’t that the story of Yonah – “I will flee from You towards You”? The anxieties of life can erect a barrier between us and G-d, and induce us to hide from the day of travail  until it passes over us. But ibn Gabirol continued: “I will hide from Your wrath – in Your shadow.” On Rosh Hashana, we seek out G-d’s protective shadow and thus rejoice, “knowing that G-d does miracles for us” As we reflect on this past year, the Jewish people have been the beneficiaries of open miracles and divine kindnesses that have our enemies shocked and dismayed. For that, we give thanks to the Creator and proclaim his greatness to all.

The GRIZ said to bury our heads in the sand and just say “all will be good,” is not bitachon. Bitachon only exists in the person who is afraid, who has strayed and sinned, and runs to G-d to do more, to be better, to supplement our own spiritual lives with another Torah class, another act of chesed, another kind word, another commitment to the Jewish people, a better davening, something that can expand on what has come before.

That is why the same shofar  that crowns the King also exhorts man to return and to repent, “so that all who wish to return can return.” We cannot crown G-d the King of Kings dispassionately, from a distance, without a personal stake. G-d’s coronation itself awaits our commitment. In a world where G-d’s name is often sullied by those who cite Him as their motivation for pure evil and wretched behavior, only we can redeem Him by our dedication and enthusiasm, by our fearless defense of His truth that He has entrusted to us, by our sacred impulse, “I will flee from You towards You,” by the sounds of the shofar that link us to G-d for all eternity.

In so doing, we hear echoes of the other shofarot – of the Ingathering of the Exiles and of the great and awesome Day of Judgment to come in the near future, and prepare ourselves for them, and thereby merit inscription for a year of life, good health and joyous occasions, of good tidings and redemption, for us and all Israel.

Shana Tova to all!

 

Jews and Guns

Press Release:

A dozen rabbis from across the country have joined with the Golani Rifle & Pistol Club to oppose recent calls for greater gun control by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Orthodox Union (OU). On August 13, the RCA issued a press release, “2014 Resolution: Gun Violence in America,” promoting arbitrary gun control measures. The RCA’s resolution endorsed the OU’s similar press release, “OU Supports Federal Legislation to Prevent Gun Violence.” Rejecting the position of the RCA and OU, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Rabbi David Bendory, and ten other rabbis, together with the members of the Golani Club, a Jewish shooting organization based in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, affirm the importance of armed self-defense by Jews and all Americans. “The RCA’s statement, like that of the OU, is rife with platitudes, ignores basic facts, and fails to recognize Judaism’s strong support for the value and practice of armed self-defense,” the joint statement reads. “The RCA and OU should promote legislation that offers law-abiding citizens full protection of their right to self-defense, both inside and outside the home, especially in the most restrictive states, which contain large Jewish population centers. All Jews, like all Americans, should be able to exercise, in a sober and prudent manner, their fundamental right and halachic obligation to defend themselves, their families, and communities, whenever the need arises.”
The full text of the joint statement is below:
JOINT STATEMENT

BY THE GOLANI RIFLE & PISTOL CLUB, RABBI STEVEN PRUZANSKY, RABBI DAVID BENDORY,
AND OTHER RABBIS IN SUPPORT OF JEWISH LAW, JEWISH LIFE, AND JEWISH SELF-DEFENSE
September 15, 2014.

We the undersigned declare our support for Jewish Law, Jewish life, and Jewish self-defense, and therefore our opposition to the recent, bewildering statement by the Rabbinical Council of America (“RCA”) that promotes arbitrary gun control measures (see “2014 Resolution: Gun Violence in America, issued August 13, 2014, at http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=105804) and explicitly endorses a similar statement by the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America (“OU”) (see “OU Supports Federal Legislation to Prevent Gun Violence,” issued April 9, 2013, athttp://www.ou.org/news/ou_supports_federal_legislation_to_prevent_gun_violence/).

The RCA’s statement, like that of the OU, is rife with platitudes, ignores basic facts, and fails to recognize Judaism’s strong support for the value and practice of armed self-defense. Although the RCA reluctantly condones legal gun ownership, their statement evinces an overall hostility to gun possession and self-defense, and completely fails to address the limitations on the self-defense rights of the law-abiding public, who live under threat from violent criminals (including Jew-haters). When a premier rabbinical body of modern orthodoxy takes a public position on an issue as critical to the Jewish people as gun regulation, it is incumbent on them first to contemplate all relevant considerations, not least of which is the well-publicized and increasing violence against Jews worldwide. This the RCA and OU have failed to do.

In response, we present below many of the reasons why these two organizations should reconsider their prior positions, and instead encourage Jews to remain ready, vigilant, and armed. The RCA and OU should promote legislation that offers law-abiding citizens full protection of their right to self-defense, both inside and outside the home, especially in the most restrictive states, which contain large Jewish population centers. All Jews, like all Americans, should be able to exercise, in a sober and prudent manner, their fundamental right and halachic obligation to defend themselves, their families, and communities, whenever the need arises.
* * * * * *
• There are already strict measures in place to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. The RCA’s and OU’s support for “restricting American citizens’ easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunitions” does not take into account the regulations that already exist nationwide, including exceptionally stringent regulations in the tri-state area around New York City that effectively ban carrying guns outside the home and subject peaceful citizens to prosecution merely for being ready to defend themselves. Access to firearms by violent criminals is already illegal, and access by the mentally ill is already restricted. It is grossly misleading to suggest that the current, complex legal regime at the federal, state, and local levels does not exist. Furthermore, the RCA and OU fail to explain why imposing additional draconian restrictions and penalties on peaceful citizens will stop criminals from obtaining guns. In fact, adding to the burdens on the law-abiding will only render them more helpless if they are assaulted – especially in places (such as synagogues) which are likely targets of nefarious people who disobey the law and commit their crimes while heavily armed. The approach taken by the RCA and OU leave their Jewish constituents virtually defenseless in the face of deadly threats.

• To stop crime, stop criminals. Everyone recognizes that a tool is not responsible for the action of the person who holds it. For instance, we do not speak of the annual murders committed with baseball bats as “bat violence.” Yet we are told that guns, unlike any other tools, actually cause crime. The real causes of crime, of course, are more complex and more difficult to address. It is much easier to talk about guns than to consider issues like family breakdown and educational decline. But focusing on guns is no more effective than focusing on any other implement used by criminals. We might as well try to regulate criminals’ shoes, gloves, masks, or cars.

• Gun control has proven ineffective at stopping crime. The RCA and OU have ignored many key facts, among which are the following:
1) Violent crime, including crime involving guns, has been declining steadily over the last two decades, at the same time as the majority of states have been lifting restrictions on the right to self-defense;
2) Spree shootings in schools or on government property are very rare events, representing a tiny fraction of annual homicides;
3) Such shootings have most often occurred in locations that have been declared officially “gun free,” which gives notice to criminals that they will be able to commit their crimes without immediate challenge;
4) The vast majority of gun homicides are committed by a relatively small population of hardened, recidivist criminals who are not deterred by laws restricting gun purchases;
5) The rates of violent crime tend to be higher in areas with the most restrictive gun laws.

• Gun owners stop criminals and save lives every day. The RCA and OU fail to recognize that ordinary citizens use guns to protect themselves and others every single day. Across the country, mothers, fathers, and even children successfully protect their families against home invaders and carjackers. Women protect themselves against rapists. Business owners and store clerks protect themselves against armed robbers. Whether by brandishing a gun, pointing it, or shooting it, gun owners are able to fend off criminals and, often, to hold them until police arrive, saving not only their own lives but the lives of future victims. While many of these incidents go unreported (and somehow none of them ever seem to make the pages of the New York Times), they happen nonetheless. For a small selection of relevant news stories, the RCA and OU might consult the Guns Save Livesblog at http://www.gunssavelives.net. For further relevant facts and analysis, they might examine the “Facts about Guns” section of The Truth About Guns blog at http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/gun-facts/.

• Peaceful gun ownership promotes equality. The statements by the RCA and OU do not consider the inevitable and unequal consequences of disarmament. Guns are “equalizers.” They empower citizens of any size or capability to withstand attack from vicious criminals. To deny this tool to peaceful citizens is to put them at the mercy of those who are stronger or more numerous. And those who are physically weakest will be most vulnerable. We prefer to read stories about grandmothers who made burglars turn tail and flee, teenagers who drove off home invaders, and wheelchair-bound men who stopped robbers, rather than obituaries about their unjust demise.

• Jewish history supports self-defense. It is remarkable that the RCA and OU have ignored the long Jewish history of persecution. The Jewish people have been murdered and persecuted in nearly every era and place on the globe. From the Crusades to the Chmielnicki massacres to the Holocaust, we have lost millions of lives to those who took advantage of our inability to defend ourselves. Even now – in this season, this week, indeed, this very day – we are being attacked in Europe and in Israel by enemies who without shame call in public for our deaths. Nor are we completely safe in the U.S., where terrorists have conspired against synagogues and individual Jews have been attacked. It should be clear that the threats against Jews in the U.S. and abroad are serious and increasing. It should be just as clear to the RCA and OU that further limiting our ability to defend ourselves at such a time is the very last thing Jewish leaders should be demanding.

• Self-defense does not equate to vigilantism. It is important to note in passing that, contrary to what is commonly alleged, possessing the tools and obtaining the training to defend oneself does not turn one into a vigilante. Many thousands of Jews are already gun owners, and yet they have not engaged in any rash of crimes. Jews as a people understand all too well how precious life is and how important it is to preserve it. However, we cannot and must not ignore the maxim of Chazal: “Haba lehargecha hashkem lehargo.” (“If one comes to kill you, kill him first.”)

• We have a duty of self-defense under Jewish Law. Our mitzvot oblige us to preserve and defend Jewish lives. This obligation is all the more important while we are in Exile and therefore at greater risk. Rendering Jews less capable of self-defense and more dependent upon others runs counter to our halachic duty, endangers all Jewry and emboldens our enemies. (Also, others are more likely to help defend us if we show that we are willing to defend ourselves.)

• The Torah praises self-defense. The Torah recognizes armed self-defense as a requirement for a free people. As Exodus 13:18 states, “The children of Israel went up out of Egypt armed.” The Israelites were no longer slaves; they were armed. Indeed, from its early chapters, the Torah teaches that readiness for armed conflict is a moral duty and necessary for Jewish survival. When Lot was kidnapped, Avraham led 318 armed men to battle in order to save him. The Torah does not say that the men had to train for battle; they were already trained. Jewry today should likewise engage in training and stand ready to defend themselves.

• The Tanach praises self-defense. The Tanach is replete with accounts of the heroic wars of Israel, from Joshua to Gideon, from David to Josiah. As in the instance of Avraham above, the Jews were able to fight because they were armed and trained. None of these leaders would have been able to go into battle if the Jews had not already readied themselves.

• Channukah celebrates self-defense. Every year on Channukah, Jews celebrate and praise the Maccabees for their armed defense of the Torah and Jewish life. Should Jews today not emulate the Maccabees’ bravery and skill?
* * * * * *
Like the RCA, we look forward to a day of universal peace, when “the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the L-rd from Jerusalem,” when G-d “will judge between the nations,” and weapons will no longer be required to defend ourselves against our enemies. But we pray for such a future with open eyes, conscious of centuries of Jewish helplessness and of the growing number of attacks on Jews today. The assumption that an era of peace and brotherhood will dawn if we disarm ourselves, limit our access to firearms, or vitiate our right of self-defense, has no support in Jewish history, the teachings of the Torah, or present reality. Plowshares and pruning hooks will not defend Jews against enemies equipped with swords, spears, and deadlier weapons. Pretending otherwise will only undermine the preservation of the Jewish people – and the security of all Americans.

Signed By:

Rabbi Sol Appleman (Syosset, NY)
Rabbi David Bendory (Livingston, NJ)
Rabbi Mordechai Cohen (Milwaukee, WI)
Rabbi Dov Fischer (Irvine, CA)
Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz (Chicago, IL)
Rabbi Reuven Mann (Phoenix, AZ)
Rabbi Gary Moskowitz (Queens, NY)
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky (Teaneck, NJ)
Rabbi Mordechai Scher (Santa Fe, NM)
Rabbi Jay Shoulson (Long Island City, NY)
Rabbi Ephraim Simon (Teaneck, NJ)
Rabbi Ephraim Slepoy (Passaic, NJ)
The Golani Rifle & Pistol Club (NJ & PA)

Obama’s War Rules

President Obama has belatedly come around to the necessity of confronting the murderers of ISIS before they threaten the American homeland directly, but better late than never. His goal – to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the so-called Islamic State – is admirable if open-ended. His chosen measures to accomplish this objective are somewhat wanting, as if he just wants to be seen as doing something more than actually doing something, but perhaps he has begun to accept one basic truth: sometimes you can’t choose your enemies; your enemies choose you.

And if his declaration that there is nothing “Islamic” about Islamic State is a tad overdrawn – the killing of infidels is a perennial and sacred obligation – something has awakened his displeasure, certainly the murder of innocents and the future threat to the United States … but also his plummeting poll numbers.

For sure, Obama is a reluctant warrior, and we wish him (and us) well in the coming campaign. Before commencing the hostilities, though, he should become more acquainted with the modern rules of warfare to which he subscribes but will soon find encumber his success. They are as follows:

  • Never use disproportionate force. ISIS does not have an air force. As such, bombing their strongholds from the air would be overkill, not to mention unfair. Their favorite weapons are machetes and knives, and so, if the US Air Force is not going to drop sharp implements on the enemy from the air, we must at least ensure that the Arab forces that will constitute the boots on the ground will be so equipped. The use of disproportionate force is immoral and probably a war crime, even if it once was the key to victory.
  • Never injure or kill a civilian. ISIS forces routinely hide among civilians, do not always dress in military garb and are not always easily identifiable as fighters. Even when they are identifiable, if their military convoys are ensconced within civilian traffic, they are by definition off limits. If their homes and headquarters are located among civilian facilities or in residential neighborhoods, they are untouchable. If they wage their battles in civilian neighborhoods, it is critical to desist from any type of military activity that might harm a single innocent civilian, even at the cost of mission failure.
  • Ensure that casualties on both sides are equal. It is unacceptable that one side in a conflict should suffer many more casualties than the other side. That per se is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the use of disproportionate force. Thus, Obama’s coalition must mandate that the casualties of the allies must equal – to a man – the casualties of ISIS. If not, well, the specter of being tried for war crimes will hang over the head of every combatant, general, president or prime minister who has a hand in this confrontation.
  • Have lawyers and ethicists vet every potential target before striking. Human life is too precious to allow such decisions to be made only by generals and commanders whose only interest is victory. Objective third-parties – perhaps even United Nations Human Rights commissioners – should be able to review battle plans before every mission and even artillery coordinates before shells are launched. Although this also might jeopardize the mission, we must be able to maintain our moral standards and especially in the face of an immoral enemy. We should not lower ourselves to their level; rather we will impose on ourselves a double, if necessary a triple, standard to guarantee fidelity to our treasured norms.
  • Embed American journalists among the ISIS fighters. This serves a double purpose: it ensures that there will be television cameras recording every bomb that explodes (assuming the above-referenced advice on dropping only knives is not heeded) and that every civilian casualty can be noted and mourned for posterity. Of course, having reporters on the ground is the only way that survivors can be interviewed and their stories about the effects of the horrific bombing campaign of the evil Americans can be told. It is also the only way to effectively calculate the number of civilians who are killed. Sad to say, do not be surprised if it turns out that only civilians were killed, and that no ISIS fighters at all were harmed – the very definition of indiscriminate bombing, another war crime.

     It is also very important to get the ISIS side of the story out in the public domain. The bad PR they currently have is undoubtedly due to the rough treatment they have afforded journalists to date, but they will learn to befriend reporters or, at the very least, intimidate some (i.e., by letting them to retain their heads) into underscoring the casualties of every American strike and downplaying their own excesses or malevolence. After all, there are two sides to every story.

  • There is no military solution to this problem. Guns and bombs never settled any conflict, and if anything, only serve to prolong it. Violence breeds more violence, hatred engenders more hatred. The cycle of violence must stop. War is so 20th century, maybe even 19th Civilized people talk through their issues and settle their disputes through words, not weapons.

     Indeed, the bombing campaign cannot take more than one month. If ISIS is not eliminated within a month, then another way must be found to deal with them as it would be clear that the problem is only going to get worse over time, not better. No one wants another long war (like World War II or Vietnam) and America especially must focus on repairing its battered economy, finding its shrinking work force new, good-paying jobs, and concentrating on redistributing the wealth of the haves to the have-nots. The problems in the Middle East are distant, hazy images on a television screen, and do not really affect Americans in their daily lives. So, if ISIS is not eradicated in a month, negotiate.

  • Self-determination is a cherished, Wilsonian goal that is universally applicable. The people of ISIS have declared their independence in territory under their control. They have decided to rid themselves of their prior allegiance to the Iraqi tyranny or the Syrian tyranny by establishing their own, home-grown tyranny. And that is their democratic right. We should not be cultural imperialists imposing our values on other political systems. Who’s to say that the American values of freedom, liberty, democracy and human rights are inherently attractive to all? Perhaps the futility of war will convince all parties of the viability of the two-state solution, the three-state solution, or as many states as ISIS wishes to create. Neither Syria nor Iraq seem to need all the territory they claim for themselves anyway, and there is plenty of land to go around for everyone (unlike, say, in Israel).

These are only some of the hurdles Barack Obama will have to overcome in his war of choice. Undoubtedly he will, and we wish him the greatest success. The future of the free world might depend on it. And if somehow the rules of engagement change and the war is fought to win, with all the appropriate and necessary measures employed when wars were fought to win, perhaps those changes can be applied elsewhere in the Middle East as well…