Category Archives: Contemporary Life

Jerusalem on Trial

How often does a United States Supreme Court decision affect you personally? The decisions of the Supremes certainly touch our lives, but usually without the immediacy of one case now awaiting decision.

Here in Israel, we have been blessed with the birth of a grandson, and his arrival brings not only great joy but also the confusion that has engendered the case of Zivitofsky v. Kerry. Our grandson was born in Jerusalem, and, under current US consular practice, his place of birth will be recorded on his American passport as “Jerusalem,” and not as is done elsewhere in the world, with the country name rather than the city name. Indeed, if he had been born in Tel Aviv or Ramat Gan, his place of birth would be recorded as “Israel.” Not so in Jerusalem, capital of Israel for, oh, going on 3000 years and the focal point of the impending holiday of Chanuka.

This discrepancy exists because, as is well known, official US policy does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, notwithstanding repeated promises and Congressional legislation to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. What is less known, and outrageous, is that official US policy does not even recognize Jerusalem as a city in Israel. That is a remarkable incongruity. Jerusalem is considered to be a disputed city whose ultimate fate is yet to be negotiated, and those born there, apparently, are stateless.

A number of years ago, the Zivitofsky family (Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivitofsky, the father, is a tremendous resource to the Jewish people in the realms of halachaminhag, science and now law) sued to have their Jerusalem-born son’s place of birth on his US passport be recorded as “Israel.” Their appeal was first denied by the Consulate, and a sympathetic Congress then passed a law mandating that any American child who is born in Jerusalem shall have his passport state that he was born in Israel. (That happened in 2002; the child in question is already Bar Mitzvah age, so long has the matter been meandering through the legal and political system.)  The bill was signed into law by President Bush, who nonetheless attached a signing statement arguing that this Congressional act was an unconstitutional violation of the president’s right to conduct foreign policy. The State Department, on those grounds, refused to implement the law. The Zivitofsky’s sued in US federal court, and the denial of their right to sue was upheld until the Supreme Court in 2011 ordered that the matter be decided on the merits.

When it was finally heard, their claim was systematically rejected on the grounds that this was a political/diplomatic question, and therefore solely the purview of the President. The appeal of that ruling is now pending before the Supremes.

How will the case be decided? The lamentable rule of thumb has usually been that “the Jews lose.” Most cases in memory of parochial Jewish interest have been decided against what could be called “the Jewish side.” It certainly does not help that the three Jewish justices who currently sit on the Court (Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan) were notably hostile to the appellant’s case. When one adds to that number the clear opposition to the law of Justice Sotomayor, it means that the Zivitofsky’s have to run the table – gain the support of all five other justices – in order to prevail.

It is certainly possible, although, as is frequently the case, Justice Kennedy might again prove to be the swing vote. Three other justices (Roberts, Scalia, and Alito) appeared to be favorably disposed to the law and appellant’s arguments (with Justice Thomas reticent as always). How is this for irony? If the Zivotovsky’s prevail, it will be because five Catholic jurists outvoted three Jews and upheld the Jewish connection to Jerusalem!

At first glance, the case appears to be unwinnable. The recognition of foreign governments and their territories is a presidential prerogative. The president is the official who is primarily responsible for the conduct of foreign policy, with Congress playing a subordinate role. Here, too, the government argued that registering the birth of an American citizen in Jerusalem as “Israel” would negate one of the norms of US foreign policy since 1948: that the status of Jerusalem is to be determined through negotiations between the parties and not unilaterally by either side. Recording in a passport that, in effect, Jerusalem is Israel (even so-called West Jerusalem), would undermine that, and presumably ignite the tinderbox that is the Middle East.

What are the counter-arguments? (The oral argument before the Court can be read and even heard in full; it makes for fascinating reading and listening.) Issues were raised by some of the justices in support of the law that even appellant’s attorney did not mention in oral argument. For example, the passport would simply record “Israel” (not Jerusalem, Israel), same as for a child born in Tel Aviv. There is nothing on the face of the passport that makes any kind of political statement; a reader would not even know that the child was born in Jerusalem.

Justice Kennedy suggested attaching a disclaimer to the passport to avert the political problem – to the effect that nothing recorded on the passport should be perceived as tantamount to recognition by the United States of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Such is done with Taiwan, which is not recognized as a country by the US but whose US citizens born there are listed as having been born in Taiwan, not, if appropriate, Taipei the capital.

Appellant argued in the alternative – that the information on an individual’s passport is a personal choice and therefore does not at all imply any formal diplomatic recognition, and that even if it does imply recognition, Congress has the right to override the president’s view, as was done more than a century ago when the Congress recognized Cuba over President McKinley’s opposition. (He later came around.)

Justice Scalia, logical as always, questioned whether recording a geographical fact in an official document amounted to formal diplomatic recognition, and asserted that Congress had the right to pass a law even if it angered the Palestinians or anyone else.

Indeed, Justice Alito underscored the farcical nature of this diplomatic dance by asking, rhetorically, does the United States recognize a birth certificate issued by Israel for those born in Jerusalem? Of course. Does the United States maintain that Israel is not sovereign in Jerusalem, such that Israel would have no right to prosecute a crime committed by an American in Jerusalem? Of course not. Additionally, diplomats and presidents who wish to visit with Israeli leaders and speak before its Parliament all go to Israel’s capital.

It emerges then that obviously some – in fact, many – attributes of sovereignty are exercised by Israel in Jerusalem and accepted by the United States – despite the State Department’s refusal to recognize the births of Americans there as occurring in Israel. As such, it falls under the purview of a congressional statute that should be enforced, regardless of the diplomatic consequences.

Appellant further claimed, slightly less persuasively, that individuals have the right to self-identify on their passports. The point was to negate the argument that recording “Israel” was the equivalent of recognition, but it leaves open the possibility of “Palestine” someday appearing on American passports as well.

Clearly, if the Court wished to do so, there are ample legal grounds to uphold the statute. There are also compelling logical grounds: for how long will the United States tap dance around the reality that Jerusalem is a city in Israel, much less its capital? Even farce should have its limits. We are no longer in1948. We are 47 years past the reunification of Jerusalem as one city under the sovereignty of Israel. If Barack Obama or John Kerry faced a Final Jeopardy question with their fortunes at stake that asked for the capital of Israel, they would both know what to answer. So,  why not stop the charade already?

In a week or so, hundreds of Jewish bigwigs will descend on the White House for the annual Chanukah party. Rather than making small talk with the President, half of the VIPs should ask him to free the ailing Jonathan Pollard and the other half should ask him to recognize Jerusalem as a city in the State of Israel. That would be an effective and intelligent use of their face time, perhaps accomplish some good, and vitiate the need for the Court to decide.

It would also justify the party itself, for Chanuka without Jerusalem is lame – just as Israel without Jerusalem is missing its soul. Let us hope that the people who attend and the Jewish organizations they represent can save one soul and redeem one holy city.

The Rebbe

I am a mitnaged (non-Chasid) of good stock and longstanding. My father was born in Pruzhana (hence my name), famous as one of the four “Karpas” towns where Chasidut never took root and Chasidim never settled. (The others were Kossova, Rassein and Slutzk.) I come by my hitnagdut honestly. It is in the genes.

Therefore I am well-positioned to write that few books have impressed me this year as much as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s “The Rebbe,” a biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l. It is an unusual biography in that it does not follow a chronological narrative but is rather a topical discussion of the issues with which the Rebbe dealt during his remarkable life into which biographical data are woven. More than six decades since the Rebbe’s assumption of the mantle of leadership of Chabad, we take for granted its successes, its pervasiveness, even its ubiquity in Jewish life. We should not take it for granted – because none of it had to be. Chabad was a small movement in 1950, having barely survived the devastation of the Holocaust. Today, its scope is breathtaking, and there are not many Jews who have not encountered a representative of Chabad, somewhere.

Few rabbis are leaders of standing; the Rebbe was such a leader, and the success of Chabad is attributable to him.

There are certain facets of the Rebbe’s life that were truly remarkable. His intellect – in a wide variety of spheres, including the sciences; his stamina – he would regularly meet people through the night until the time for Shacharit (he seemed to need exceedingly little sleep); his sensitivity – in one vignette, a Chasid revealed that the Rebbe covered his face while davening in his semi-private alcove so that people should not stare at him, but uncovered his face when he was visited by a disfigured former Israeli soldier so that the latter should not feel that the Rebbe was trying to avoid looking at him; his openness – he treated men and women, Jews and non-Jews, young and old with the same respect and courtesy; his prodigious memory (an eyewitness told me that the Rebbe immediately picked up a conversation with him, a relative unknown, without batting an eye and after an interval of…ten years); and, of course, his knowledge of Torah that left a legacy of the equivalent of hundreds of books filled with Torah insights of extraordinary depth, substance and complexity.

As an outsider, I was less aware of the closeness of the Rebbe to his predecessor, the Previous Rebbe, his father-in-law, including weekly visits to his grave that could last hours, something that provided him with inspiration but is quite detached from the life of a Mitnaged. Certainly the succession controversy – which lasted more than a year when the Previous Rebbe died – was unknown to me and caused deep unrest within the Rebbe’s family. The choice – between two sons-in-law – shaped the relationship of the two sisters (the Previous Rebbe’s daughters) for the rest of their lives. And even if the Rebbe’s brother-in-law reconciled himself to his new status – he received a major appointment in the Chabad hierarchy – his wife was less impressed. After the controversy over the removal from the Chabad library of some of the Previous Rebbe’s books by the Rebbe’s nephew (a federal judge ruled that the legacy had to be returned and was rightfully the property of Chabad as an organization and not any person or family), the sisters apparently never spoke again.

What shines through every page is the Rebbe’s selflessness – the complete dedication of his life and all his energy to bringing Torah and Mitzvot to every Jew. The dollars he gave out were not to be kept but to be given by the recipient to the charity of his choice. (One NYPD officer, accompanying a local politician to the Rebbe, received a dollar, and dropped it off immediately in the collection box at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in mid-town Manhattan!) He saw the waning of Jewish observance well before it became a “crisis,” and began campaigns that are, by now, routine and familiar parts of the international Jewish landscape: the tefillin campaign (“are you Jewish?”), Shabbat candle lighting for every Jewish mother and daughter (including the Friday ad in the NY Times announcing the proper time), the public Menorah lighting (an issue that the US Supreme Court eventually ruled on, and in Chabad’s favor), the study of the Rambam’s works, and of course, the establishment of Chabad houses in 49 states across the USA – only South Dakota lacks a permanent Chabad presence that can service its 350 Jews – and more than 100 countries across the world.

Some of these are of dubious halachic import – but the objective was and is to establish points of connection between a Jew and his/her heritage, wherever we are in the world and whatever level of observance we have at the time. The goal is to remind every Jew that every mitzvah done by whomever, wherever, is a legitimate service of G-d, elevates our lives and benefits the individual and the society in which he/she lives. No persona or organization has touched more Jewish lives in the last century.

For sure, the Rebbe was a man of great complexity. There are stories with conflicting resolutions and even contradictory messages. For example, to some people with problems he gave advice but told them they had to decide for themselves; to others, he offered no advice at all. Still others – especially Lubavitcher Chasidim – were ordered to do one thing or another. This meant that the Rebbe approached each person as an individual, as unique. One size did not fit all.

The classic cases of direction involved assignment on shlichut – the staffing of the Chabad houses across the world. That was done by the Rebbe, and the shlichim – husband and wife – were expected to follow the Rebbe’s directives “like a soldier following the orders of the general.” He did not seem to take “no” for an answer when he dispatched a representative, nor even when that representative felt he was failing. Indeed, it is astonishing how few Chabad houses have “failed,” i.e., gone out of business, closed up shop, and very often in environments that are inhospitable to traditional Jews. Additionally, the Rebbe would frequently be consulted about shidduchim among his adherents, with a mental data base of people that reached the thousands.

Perhaps above all he instilled a love of all Jews in his followers, the first prerequisite for a Chabad shaliach. Whereas a traditional community has to strive to maintain halachic standards (Shabbat observance, the intermarriage taboo, etc.), Chabad has the luxury of being able to welcome all Jews, even occasionally non-Jews, into their sanctuaries. As a rule, Chabad does not do conversions, but they certainly have succeeded in “family reunifications,” encouraging Torah study and mitzvah observance until the non-Jewish spouse is ready for a proper conversion. I have personally witnessed and been part of that experience.

Of course, any leader is subject to criticism, and the Rebbe had numerous detractors outside his world. Not all criticisms found their way into this book – and just as well. Other Chasidic groups routinely attacked Lubavitch, sometimes physically; many Jews resented Chabad’s efforts at kiruv – then, in the 1950’s, unknown and perhaps even unwanted in Jewish life. Relations in Crown Heights between the Jewish and non-Jewish residents were not always tranquil. These matters are given relatively short shrift in the book, perhaps because the unsuccessful often carp at the successful – and Chabad has been an enormous, even unimaginable, success.

The Rebbe realized before most that women had a powerful, indispensable contribution to make to Jewish public life. He was not uncomfortable around women, something that is occasionally found in other Chasidic courts and in the Lithuanian world as well. He also stood out for his staunch opposition to territorial concessions by Israel and routinely shared his unvarnished opinions with Israeli political leaders. He was enormously active in the liberation of Soviet Jewry but behind the scenes rather than through public demonstrations, having been personally burned by the evil of  Communism in his own life.

One controversial area not skirted is the Moshiach question, which certainly has colored public perceptions of Chabad in the last quarter century. Here, Rabbi Telushkin takes the unequivocal position that, of course, the Rebbe, being deceased, was not Moshiach, cannot be Moshiach, and during his lifetime did not fulfill most of the prerequisites for the Moshiach as outlined in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. Of course, not being Moshiach is hardly a criticism; it is the fate of everyone who is not Moshiach! But there is something quite noble about a rabbi’s followers thinking he might be Moshiach. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 98b) states that disciples in different academies felt that Moshiach’s name was – no coincidence – the name of the head of their academy! In this regard, Chabad is no different, except since the Rebbe’s passing, when such talk should have stopped. (If Moshiach can come from the dead, then why not King Shlomo, Rebbi Akiva, Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, etc.?) But the deep personal attachment that many Chabadniks have to the Rebbe makes that conclusion somewhat understandable, if misguided and even heretical. One hopes that it will fade over time; it doesn’t help that Chabad had no succession plan in mind when the Rebbe died. Despite that – and this is a tribute to the Rebbe’s greatness – Chabad has grown since his death and not contracted, as some Chabad detractors predicted. The spark that he lit continues to ignite Jewish souls everywhere.

Did the Rebbe ever claim to be Moshiach? To answer this question, the author cites a number of clear and public examples in which the Rebbe denied it vehemently, even urging his followers – once, angrily – to desist from such speculation. But such talk only grew after the Rebbe’s stroke – two years before his death – left him unable to speak or move. Some of his most fervent followers interpreted his silence as tacit acceptance of their claims, when in fact it was just the silence of physical infirmity. To a mitnaged, one price of Chasidut is the suspension of one’s critical faculties in deference to the Rebbe’s (any Rebbe’s) will or wishes, a price that most of us who live in the other world will not pay.

The Rebbe’s slow demise was sad, and one winces when reading about the frustration that this most energetic, vibrant and charismatic of men must have felt when illness was thrust upon him, stilling his voice forever, with disagreement among the physicians as to how much he was able to understand. (The other great frustration – mentioned in the book several times but apparently rarely by the Rebbe in public – was the Rebbe and his wife’s childlessness.) Charisma also comes with a price: the Rebbe refused to be hospitalized after a serious heart attack in the 1970’s, so his followers were hesitant to hospitalize him after the stroke. That delay of 4-5 hours, some of his doctors said, worsened his condition and exacerbated the extent of his debilities.

Nonetheless, reading the book is calisthenics for the soul. It enables us – through the life of one dominant Jewish figure, one of the few real Jewish leaders of the last century – to realize how much one individual can accomplish, how much goodness can be promoted, how much love of Israel and humanity are possible. It is all possible if one looks beyond the self, and tries to serve G-d by serving His creatures and immersing ourselves in His Torah.

It is impossible to read of “The Rebbe,” and – even we retain our hitnagdut – not to be inspired by such a person and such a life. If we can’t all be Chabad, then at least there should be a little Chabad in all of us.

Clarification!

Let me be absolutely clear: The “savages” referred to in “Dealing with Savages” were terrorists such as those who perpetrated the horrific massacre in Har Nof last week. Indeed, Mike Huckabee began his FOX program this past week referring to the perpetrators as savages. Which they were. But I certainly did not, nor did I intend to, call all Arabs or Muslims “savages,” nor do I, obviously, believe that to be so.

I condemn those who support those savages, and I include in their number those who aid them, assist them and even – as happened last week – those who raucously celebrated the dismemberment of four rabbis and the death of the Druze police officer.

But to extrapolate from that sentiment and apply it to all Arabs or all Muslims is repugnant to me, and a complete distortion of what I wrote and intended to write. To the extent that my words could be misinterpreted, I take full responsibility and regret the lack of clarity.

    I wrote, in part: “Of course, [Arabs] who wish to stay and be peaceful, acknowledging the sovereignty of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, are welcome to stay.”

     There is much more that I can cite about my previous post, but the controversy swirling around it traces, in essence, to a JTA report that omitted that phrase – and others – and thus sought to portray me as a raving lunatic who hates all Arabs and perhaps all non-Jews, and wishes ill upon all of them. G-d forbid.

I strongly advocate the rights of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. I strongly condemn terrorists and their supporters. That, after all, was the Bush Doctrine: “you are either with us or with the terrorists.” What is remarkable is that the overwhelming majority of victims of radical Muslim terror today are not Jews or Christians – but Muslims. Good Muslims therefore have a self-interest, and not only an obligation, to denounce such terror in all its guises.

I find the murder of Jews and all innocents  intolerable, and it was with those images in mind that I wrote.

The gist of my remarks offered suggestions on how terror in Israel could be deterred. The government of Israel is wrestling with this very issue. Many people wrote in support of those suggestions. Some people took issue with one, two, several or all of the measures – while pointedly offering no suggestions of their own.

I wish there was greater outrage, among rabbis, Jews, Christians and Muslims at the loss of life. Among Jews, there is often sadness, grief and mourning – but little constructive is offered that might deter future attacks. Indeed, I wish there was greater outrage at the ongoing carnage in Syria, in the endless suicide bombings that kill Muslims weekly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Does anyone care about the loss of life – beyond the platitudes? I am certain there are many people who care, and I wish they would suggest concrete ways to change the situation.

We must always take care to protect the innocent. Israel has done an outstanding job in making its diverse, multi-ethnic society hospitable to all. Israeli Arabs who are peaceful and appreciative make important contributions to their society in all aspects. They deserve our respect and admiration. If my words did not make that clear enough, then I offer my sincere regrets. The fact that few Israeli-Arabs depart Israel to live in other Arab countries is eloquent testimony to their appreciation of their freedoms in Israel and a refutation to those who would castigate Israel for “discrimination.”

That the threat of violence hangs in the air is most troubling. It is unacceptable in a civil society to express displeasure or seek to resolve disputes through violence. That three more Jews were attacked and wounded tonight in Jerusalem is also unconscionable. More is required than mere condemnation of terror, sympathy for the victims, and life goes on. Because for some, it doesn’t. Complacency also kills.

There is already too much hatred in the world. To the extent that my remarks, even unintentionally, added to that hatred, I certainly apologize. I would like nothing more than for all Bible-believing people to recognize the rights of the Jewish people to our historic homeland and enable the Jewish people to live in peace. In the end, despite all the overcharged rhetoric, that remains my passion and the reason why I wrote what I did.

Let us remain calm, faithful and strong.

 

Response

(The following in similar form was submitted to the Jewish Link as a response to Rabbi Goldin’s response. They declined to print it this week.)

To the Editor:

I thank my dear colleague Rabbi Goldin for his response to my concerns. I do trust, as I am sure he does, that nothing awry, unusual or illegal will be found in the operation of any other batei din. One correction that he made is indeed welcome: under the current guidelines, contrary to what I wrote, sponsoring rabbis may be part of the conversion court as well.

In that regard, I erred for the best of reasons. The complete separation of the two roles – sponsoring rabbi and dayyan­ ­– was part of the original protocols established. That made sense for the reasons I outlined last week. But they were changed – perhaps at the very beginning – because of the insistence of small town courts that they did not have the manpower (i.e., “rabbi”-power) to consistently isolate the sponsoring rabbi from the conversion court. The language was then amended to permit such affiliation. I was unaware that they were changed, so, in any event, here in Bergen County, we always adhered to the original standard. We never allowed a sponsoring rabbi to be part of the conversion court in any respect. Never. All sponsoring rabbis knew that. I just assumed other batei din did the same. Our way made sense, and still does. The safety measures that I outlined last week were in place – but in Teaneck. That the protocol in DC applied the amended standard was, in retrospect, part of the problem. I assume as well that trying to re-implement the original standard will meet with the same objections of the small town courts.

Without re-hashing what has already been written on this matter, there is one questionable situation that remains that is neither slanderous nor speculative. It is clear from Rabbi Goldin’s own account that concerns were raised about the character of our DC colleague long before the voyeurism charges were adduced. These concerns were known to a very small group in the RCA, and resulted in our colleague’s dismissal as chairman of the GPS committee. Clearly there were red flags. Which begs the question: why were the allegations sufficient to remove him as head of the GPS committee but insufficient to remove him as head of the DC Bet Din, which, in retrospect, would have been a blessing for everyone concerned?

I don’t for a moment suspect mens rea on the part of the small group that decided his fate. If anything, it seems like negligence born of compassion. But, if the new committee is investigating (among other things) what went wrong in DC, and one thing that went wrong was the failure of the leadership in both oversight and effective response to the original DC misconduct, it is indeed odd that someone from that same leadership should serve on the committee – indeed, as chairman of the committee. No person should investigate himself. The errors, such as they were, in the end reflected poorly – apparently, as the formation of the committee itself indicates – on all batei din and all rabbis.

We have suffered inordinately in the last 25 years because of the accusation that rabbinic scandals are swept under the rug, investigated privately or not investigated at all. There should be accountability for poor decisions, however well-intentioned. Retaining someone as head of a Bet Din when it was known – regardless of justification or the peculiarities of the DC system – that he was exploiting conversion candidates to work for him in his home, in his university office, for donations, et al – was an error of judgment. The RCA could have sought his dismissal or could have insisted that the Beth Din of America dismiss him. The Executive Committee could have been apprised and offered its recommendation. None of that was not done, and victims paid a steep price for that. Hindsight is usually 20/20, but hindsight is 20/400 when the lights are dimmed, the curtains are drawn, the walls are erected, and the wagons are circled.

Consequently, there are many people – rabbis and laymen who have spoken to me – who feel that an outside investigation that includes no members of the RCA is warranted in order to fully explore how such errors were made and in order to regain public trust. A movement is already under way calling for such an investigation. And if, as media report, the female victims here are considering suing (among others) the RCA for malfeasance, such an investigation will happen sooner or later. Sooner is better. That is neither slander nor speculation, nor are any insinuations or accusations being made. It just seems like elementary yashrut and common sense.

I thank Rabbi Goldin for his kind words about me. The feelings are mutual. And in navigating those treacherous waters between dueling expectations for the conversion committee, and between maintaining the status quo and the vehement demand for modifications, I wish him much success. I, too, hope the work of the committee bears positive fruit.

- RSP

Breaking News!

Well, not really…

One week from tonight (Wednesday, November 19), I am honored to be receiving the Rabbinic Leadership Award at the annual banquet of the American Friends of Sderot. The dinner will begin at 6:00 PM, and will be held at the Hilton Meadowlands (free parking included!).

For well over a decade, the Jews of Sderot have been on the front lines of the Arab terror war against Israel. Situated less than a kilometer from the Gaza border, Sderot has been the recipient of more than 10,000 Arab rockets and missiles during that time frame. One cannot walk more than 15 seconds anywhere in Sderot without encountering a bomb shelter. They are ubiquitous – at bus stops and in public parks, in playgrounds and commercial districts. They are testament to the capacity of evil people to perpetrate their evil and the capacity of good people to remain steadfast and resolute, and not to surrender to that evil.

At the heart of Sderot is the Yeshivat Hesder led by Rav Dovid Fendel, a native Long Islander. Notwithstanding its location – and perhaps due to its location and the iron will of Israeli youth – it is one of the largest Hesder yeshivot in Israel, educating hundreds of students annually. The yeshiva as well is fortified with reinforced concrete – roof, walls and dormitory – to enable it to withstand the onslaught of enemy evil. And the yeshiva administration and student body (all IDF soldiers, past and present) are renowned for teaching Torah throughout Sderot and going to each neighborhood under fire in order to bring strength and courage to the beleaguered residents.

I try to visit Sderot at least once a year, spend some time in the yeshiva, with the residents and in the shopping areas, and I did again this past summer during Operation Protective Edge. The good people of Sderot and the Yeshiva at its heart have taught all Jews never to run from evil, never to cower before our enemies, and never to abandon our principles and values in the face of challenges. Both continue to inspire all Israel with their sacrifice, strength and perseverance. They remind us that we can grow, prosper, contribute and advance the destiny of the Jewish people notwithstanding the “background noise” of our enemies.

I invite all of you to attend the dinner or otherwise contribute to the American Friends of Sderot, so we all can have a share in what they have built and we all can reap a small part of the heavenly reward that is theirs. Those wishing to attend or contribute are invited to log on to https://www.sderot.org/dinner, or call 718-673-4945.

I look forward to personally greeting all attendees. Thank you for your support.

The Last Word: Gary Rosenblatt Still Lies

This is, I hope, my last word on this subject. I confess that I expected better. I expected that Gary Rosenblatt and the Jewish Week would do what is honorable and decent, a sign of integrity, and what should be typical among Jews with even faint aspirations for ethical goodness: retract and apologize for printing a demonstrable lie, to wit: that I resigned as Rosh Bet Din in Bergen County because the RCA appointed women to a committee to review the standards and practices for conversion and to minimize the potential for future abuses. But rather than apologize, the Jewish Week utilized two standard journalistic gimmicks, both of which reflect poorly on the publisher and his staff.

The first gimmick involved just dropping the lie from subsequent news accounts. No clarification, no correction, no retraction and, of course, no apology. The lie was just dropped, lifted from the printed page as precipitously as it was first placed there. To the unsuspecting or casual reader, it is as if it never took place. But, of course, the lie remains in cyberspace, and especially in the accounts of other newspapers that re-printed it before it was summarily dropped. To the Jewish Week way of thinking, apparently, dropping a lie is the same as retracting it. In the real world where normal people live and interact, it is not. One who wrongly insults another person does not make amends for the insult by abstaining from its repetition.
The second gimmick – oh, how they must have enjoyed this one! – was accusing me of exploiting the Holocaust by, in their words, comparing the publisher to a Nazi and the paper to an infamous Nazi propaganda vehicle. Of course, as several astute readers pointed out with elaboration, I did no such thing. Sadly, not every reader is as astute, and many – apparently including some of my colleagues – suffer from reading comprehension issues. (Granted, any mention of anything Holocaust-related often causes people’s rational faculties to shut down and their emotional sensitivities to shift into overdrive.)
All I did was respond in kind to a sleazy journalistic trick that they attempted to use on me. The trick? Conflating “comparison” with “commonality.” It goes like this: the statement, “Gary Rosenblatt has two eyes and two feet, just like Genghis Khan” is a true statement. It is not a comparison of those two individuals, but an assertion of what they have “in common.” It is no indication at all that the two men are essentially alike – values, personality, temperament, world-view, etc. – but the linkage of the two is designed to arouse in the mind of the reader an  unfavorable image.
This is the game that the Jewish Weak played with me (I imagine it does with other targets as well). Writing about me, they decided to drop in a couple of sentences that indicated that I served on the Executive Committee of the RCA (a true statement) along with (the gratuitous expression of commonality) a certain DC colleague who has since been arrested for voyeurism. In their choice phrase, I “shared company” with him on the RCA. Did they “compare” me to him? Not really. They just wanted to awaken in the mind of the reader the unfortunate association on the RCA between him (alleged miscreant) and me (their new target).
Obviously, dozens of other rabbis, perhaps as many as 100, at one time or another “shared company” with the alleged offender. Not as obviously, some RCA rabbis had a much closer relationship with him than I did and failed to rein him in when made aware of his past misconduct. But no matter: what was important to this tabloid was to plant the thought in the mind of the reader that bad guy (him)=bad guy (me) without actually saying that.
Well, if they wanted to play the game of commonality v. comparison, then I suggested they should try this on for size: both Gary Rosenblatt and Julius Streicher publish[ed] newspapers. Both use[d] ink on paper. Both were preoccupied with Jews. Etc. Is that a comparison? Of course not. It is just underscoring the commonalities that exist between the two – in non-essential matters – in order to plant a negative image in the mind of the reader.
Having exposed the cheap trick that they used, the publisher soared into high dudgeon and accused me of “exploiting the Holocaust.” That was certainly a masterful way of changing the topic away from his lies, and attempting to portray himself as victim rather than as victimizer. I did remove the phrase from my comment in deference to an esteemed colleague who is exquisitely sensitive to any Holocaust reference, not that it did me any good. But the focus wasn’t on the Holocaust – but on journalism. I could’ve provided examples of “yellow journalism” and Hearst, Pulitzer and the rest, but that allusion would have been lost on most people.

It is true that whenever the Holocaust is referred to at all, any subtlety is completely lost in the process. It is indeed unpleasant to find one’s name gratuitously linked in the same sentence with a Nazi, as it is unpleasant to find one’s name gratuitously linked in the same sentence with an accused voyeur. That was my point! Yet, the publisher acts as if it was some innocent mistake on his part, or something that lent itself to different meanings, and something that offended me and would not have offended another person.
It is not surprising that he resented having his sordid tactics used against him, and his only response – rather than concede the use of the dastardly ploy – was to cry “Holocaust.”
So allow me to state unequivocally that Gary Rosenblatt is not a Nazi, and the Jewish Week is not Der Sturmer. The Jewish Week is adept at a modern form of yellow journalism, in which the use of commonality as comparison is rampant, in which lies are wantonly published and in which targets – especially Orthodox Rabbis, Orthodox Jews and the Holy Torah – are routinely assailed. Sadly, such drivel has its audience.
I am among the legion of Jews who ordinarily pay absolutely no attention to the Jewish Week. As such, I never realized the extent to which this paper and its publisher have tormented Rabbis, trampled Orthodoxy, and provided a forum for hatred of Torah (as well the liberal politics that passes in some circles for Torah). I also never realized the extent of the disdain and contempt with which the Jewish Week and its publisher are held in this corner of the Torah world.
Now that the attempt is being made to shift the story away from the lies they print to – Rosenblatt- shorthand – “he called me a Nazi” (which, obviously, I did not), I take this opportunity to correct the record, or to make the record. Some will say that I should just ignore them and their lies. But the days are long gone when I will let someone else define me, depict me falsely in the public domain, or otherwise defame me without response. That mistake I made in the 1990’s, and with this same “news” paper, among others.
I should not leave off the hook the reporter who printed the original set of lies – several, not just one. One would think that a reporter named Dreyfus would be sensitized to the dangers inherent in lodging false accusations against innocent Jews. I guess not. (What amused me was the characterization of my emotional state that led to my original decision. To the Jewish Week, I was “angered” by the RCA decision; to one cellar-dweller, I was “enraged” by their decision. What’s next? Livid? Foaming at the mouth? Needed to be restrained by a strait-jacket? Fabricating someone’s emotional state is just another insidious journalistic technique to paint the story in line with their agenda. I haven’t felt even a twinge of anger. Angry? Why would I be angry?)
For the record, and at the risk of redundancy, I did not call Gary Rosenblatt a Nazi nor did I compare his paper to Der Sturmer. He is not and it is not. I simply pointed out commonalities that do not reflect the true essence of either – i.e., exactly what he did to me by linking me to an accused voyeur. I have exactly the same amount of regret for doing so that he does for doing it to me.  I did it to point out to him the device that he used against me – and, for all I know, against others as well: linkage through innuendo, commonality as comparison.
Gary Rosenblatt is not a Nazi, nor a Communist, nor a Fascist. But until he retracts and apologizes for the lies he wrote about me, he remains a Liar.
And that is the last word. Anticipating no apology, we move on.

Gary Rosenblatt Lies. Now He Should Apologize.

(This was originally entitled “Media Lies.” As much as I hate mentioning names – it personalizes the matter when it is far better just to discuss the issues – I am responding to the Jewish Week’s latest attack on me, an obvious attempt to evade responsibility for the lies they published by cloaking themselves in the mantle of the Holocaust. If they do apologize eventually, I will be delighted to note it, and return to weightier matters. – RSP)

The Jerusalem Post earlier this week picked up the lie originally published in the NY Jewish Week – “US Rabbi Leaves Conversion Court over Women’s Role” – proving once again truth of Mark Twain’s adage that “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” I never realized how literal that statement was.

The contention of the NY Jewish Week that I stepped down to protest the formation by the RCA of a mixed gender conversion committee was a lie, is a lie and will remain a lie. Even worse, it was published and retained by them as a conscious, calculated and intentional lie. They were informed immediately after they published the lie that it was a lie. Immediately. Not a day later or a week later. Immediately. The publisher then doubled down and compounded his lies with more lies.

 A number of Jewish community leaders have appealed to the publisher to retract and apologize – or at least retract – knowing, as they do, that the newspapers’ assertion is a complete lie. To date, the publisher has refused to retract, clarify, apologize or in any way mitigate the propagation of the lie that his reporter fabricated and that he disseminated. He has attempted to divert attention for his misdeeds by playing word games. Nice try at changing the topic. So much for the great ethics of the great ethicists who sit in judgment of everyone else.

You can judge for yourselves, for it is on this paragraph that the lie was based, a paragraph that I wrote last week:

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.”

 

I noted that this was an attempt to bolster the trend on the Orthodox left to create quasi-rabbinical roles for women. Did I suggest or even hint that the appointment of women to the committee was a reason to resign? Not in the least. I even noted that women “probably” have a role to play in suggesting safeguards against abuse – but not in formulating conversion standards or practices. It is the committee itself that troubles me – not the presence of women on the committee – an exercise more in public relations than in substance. There are men whose presence on the committee troubled me, as their hostility to the GPS system is well known. That is the “makeup” of the committee to which I referred.

Was there even an insinuation, an allusion, or a reference to the presence of women on the committee that would induce me to resign? Not in the slightest. We have women on our shul board and a woman Vice-President. I interact with professional and intelligent women all the time; I don’t live in a cave or in the 16th century (not that there’s anything wrong with the 16th century, or the modern cave). The Jewish Week is simply engaging in character assassination, trying to marginalize my voice (notwithstanding that to some, the suggestion that I resigned because of the presence of women made me a hero, not a villain). But if I am to be a hero to some, then at least let it be for some principle I espoused, value that I upheld or action that I performed that achieved some good. Not for a lie.

It was quite clear to any reader – except the willfully dishonest ones – that my reasons for resigning related to my sense that the GPS standards would change – in one form or another – and to escape the culture of negativity, suspicion and distrust with which the conversion process has been invested. It had absolutely nothing to do with women – on the committee, off the committee, or anywhere else. That was an intentional and malicious fabrication. There is simply no way that the words that I wrote could be interpreted to mean what they claimed it meant.

Indeed, insiders knew of my decision a week before I even knew a committee was being formed, and attempted to talk me out of it. One can agree or disagree with the formation of the RCA committee, its composition or its mandate – but no honest person can assert that it was the presence of women that led to my decision. It was simply not in my words or in my thought process. The attempt to make that the story is simply shameful, reprehensible and dishonorable. And the publisher still refuses to apologize or retract. This is not a misunderstanding or a few words taken out of context. This is a disgraceful lie.

Now, why would a journalist blatantly print lies and falsehoods? I hesitate to speculate. Obviously, recent events have reminded us that we never fully know what kind of demons lurk within human beings, demons that they carry with them (perhaps from childhood) and lead them into all sorts of mischief. One astute observer commented, about the publisher: The man never met a feminist, especially a so-called “orthodox” one he hasn’t tripped over his shoes running to worship. Likewise, he’s never met an orthodox rabbi, especially ones that ignore him, that he hasn’t tried to vilify.”

     The press has tremendous power. Despite its low standing with the public, and the obvious credibility issues some journalists have, people have a tendency to believe something simply because it is in print. (The Rambam mentions such a phenomenon in the Guide to the Perplexed, in reference to ancient writings.) Obviously, in this particular case, the publisher and his staff are pushing an agenda, trying to ensure that a very vocal interest group maintains its pressure on the RCA and trying – for years already – to belittle, disparage and weaken the rabbinate as an institution. They are actively engaged in trying to remake the Jewish world by weakening observance, diluting Jewish identity, and mocking true commitment. It really is the “Jewish Weak.”

It is not just the highlighting of rabbinical scandals, especially involving Orthodox rabbis. That is a legitimate role, even if it can also be abused. More troubling is the ignoring of some rabbinical scandals because they involved favored rabbis, those who toe the ideological line of the publisher or have otherwise earned his favor. Then, the “public interest” in exposing malfeasance takes a back seat to the “public interest” – as he sees it – in promoting a particular agenda. That is dishonest.

None of this is new nor should it be shocking. In the most infamous example of the last decade in just a slightly different context, Israeli journalists admitted to protecting PM Ariel Sharon “like an etrog” (their term) from the corruption and bribery scandals that engulfed him during his tenure in office so that he would be able to expel Jews from Gaza and destroy the settlements there – a goal of the Israeli left (and the American Jewish left, including the Jewish Week) since those settlements were built. Fortunately, Gaza has been quiet since the expulsion in 2005 and there have been no harmful ramifications of that expulsion…  A right-wing prime minister accused of the same crimes would have been hounded out of office, as we see the left consistently pesters PM Netanyahu over nonsense, especially things involving his wife. The same process occurred with Ehud Olmert – although it was the relentless reporting of a right-wing journalist that eventually led to his downfall, arrest, conviction and pending prison sentence, and after decades of corrupt behavior.

Sadly, the day has long passed when journalists just report the news. Now, they think they are the news, they make the news, and sometimes – as in my case – they just make up the news. And they can do that – not, of course, according to the Torah, which is grossly violated, but according to the US Supreme Court in NY Times v. Sullivan (my analysis can be heard here, http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/765992/Rabbi_Steven_Pruzansky/THE_LAW_AND_THE_LAW:_The_New_York_Times_v_Sullivan:_Libel_Law,_and_the_Torah’s_View_of_Journalism‘), which essentially permits journalists to defame public figures as long as they don’t do it with “malice.” And go prove that there is malice.

Of course, I hesitate to castigate all journalists just because of the sins of one; they are not rabbis after all, who are held to that standard… They are not all guilty of something venal just because one is. They don’t all have to be suspects just because one is. Nah, that’s just for rabbis…

Once again, I call on the Jewish Week to retract and apologize. They can then try to undo the harm that they have attempted to cause me – collect all the feathers blowing in the wind, in the famous parable – by publicizing their retraction, informing the Jerusalem Post and other outlets that unknowingly disseminated their lies. And if they don’t, they don’t. Dante placed in the Ninth Circle of Purgatory those people who were guilty of treachery born of pride, i.e., arrogance. (The Eighth Circle consists of those guilty of fraud; I wonder who decides when there are several options…) Perhaps dishonest journalists just do not want the denizens of Dante’s Ninth Circle of Purgatory to be lonely. Sweet, sensitive types, obviously.

Many good Jews do not read the NY Jewish Week, being quite familiar with the animus of some of its staff to Torah Judaism. Other good Jews who would not consider bringing treif food into their homes should really ask themselves on what grounds they justify bringing treif newspapers into their homes, do they really want to desecrate their Shabbat with such publications – and why should they patronize the advertisers who enrich the purveyors of prevarications, fomenters of falsehoods and haters of holiness?

People can agree or disagree with me. That is fine, indeed welcome. I enjoy the exchanges and it often spurs public debate in a healthy direction. But people with integrity do not fabricate assertions and use them to disparage their ideological opponents. We shall soon learn if there is even a shred of integrity at the NY Jewish Week. Gary, apologize and retract. Don’t hide behind diversions, word games or excuses.

 

     At the risk of boring the reader, and the double risk of redundancy, here’s the link to the Link, and an interview from this week:  http://jewishlinkbc.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5388%3Arabbi-pruzansky-responds-why-i-stepped-down-from-the-rcbc-bet-din&catid=150%3Anews&Itemid=562.

[Update: Just a short time ago, the hapless Jewish Week sort of “regret” linking me with the DC rabbi accused of a number of crimes, claiming  that they did not intend to suggest that I was connected to his activities. Obviously, then, the reference  was just gratuitous and an attempt to further malign me, but the publisher then claimed that we were linked in an “unsuccessful challenge” to the RCA slate of officers running in 2012.

Can’t the Jewish Week get anything right? I, and a dozen or so others, ran independently as petition candidates for various RCA offices in 2012.

But I won my election, and currently serve on the Executive Committee. That is hardly what one would call an “unsuccessful challenge,” except in Jewish Week speak. This partial apology was offered in the context of changing the topic – as corrupt journalists do so well – accusing me of comparing the Jewish Week and its publisher to the infamous Der Sturmer and its publisher, Julius Streicher, what they termed an “outrageous comparison.” Heaven forfend! There is no comparison and I would never make such a comparison, any more than they were comparing me to my DC colleague. One can note what they have in common – they are both newspapers – without comparing them. There is no comparison! I certainly regret if they misconstrued my comment and anyone offended took offense, even those who do not mind routinely causing offense to others.

Now, will the Jewish Week apologize and retract for disseminating the false propaganda that I resigned from the local Bet Din in order to protest the inclusion of women on the RCA Committee, or will they continue to hide and obfuscate behind linguistic smokescreens and pitiable diversions?

-RSP