Category Archives: Jewish History

The Civilian Charade

I realize that one is supposed to grieve incessantly over the loss of civilian life in Gaza, over the deaths of innocent women and children, or over the mourning of mothers for their sons and wives for the husbands. All of them have been robbed of their lives by a cruel world, or just the nefarious Jews who wantonly fire into civilian areas just to kill people.

Israel has certainly publicly embraced this outpouring of anguish, saying all the right things, as in “we deeply regret the loss of civilian life…” or “we do everything to avoid civilian casualties…” or PM Netanyahu’s now-famous sound bite that “we use our missiles to protect our civilians, while they use their civilians to protect their missiles” (it is a good line). And Israel is sincere in these protestations.

Count me among those who found it hard to muster any sympathy for these Gazans, who routinely rejoice over Jewish deaths and would applaud the massacre and slaughter of any Jews. Let’s face a few facts and debunk the canard of the sacred civilian of the Gaza Strip.

First, even their combatants are “civilians,” and intentionally so. In blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions, Hamas terrorists (the same applies to Islamic terrorists across the world) do not wear uniforms and intentionally try to blend in to the “civilian” population. Thus, when they are killed, the familiar scenes of sorrow can appear on the television screen, of the bereaved Arab crying, “look, they killed the teacher…the preacher…the butcher…the baker…the bomb- (rather, the candlestick-) maker.” Israel has to habitually identify – even by name! – these alleged civilians in order to refute the accusation that they are killing civilians. To the Arab way of thinking, no one is ever a soldier; they are all civilians.

Second, as is now well known, Hamas conceals its weapons and launches its rockets from the very heart of its civilian population. They have made their civilians the targets, and official Israel has done an outstanding job in underscoring this point. Homes and hospitals, mosques and schools, are used as both weapons storage sites as well as launching pads for rockets and missiles. That is a war crime, and Israel would do well to ignore all the hollow complaints and continue its offensive until Gaza is rid of Hamas. It would dramatically improve the lives of the civilians in Gaza, however many remain alive.

Of course, Israel’s sensitivity to this issue is such that it undermines the military success of this mission – while certainly acting in a humanitarian way – by warning the Arab inhabitants of targeted areas to leave, and to leave quickly, before a raid. This saves civilian lives, but it also allows Hamas-niks to escape their day of reckoning. In the end, buildings are destroyed, but the enemy, who can soon rebuild those buildings and those weapons sites, lives to terrorize another day

Third, we should not forget that these Gazans are “innocent” civilians only in the most elastic and distorted sense of the term. After all, they voted for Hamas. Hamas did not seize power, except in the sense that they ran on a platform and drew an overwhelming majority of support from the electorate. That the people’s favorite party turned out (surprise!) to be brutal, malicious murderers, who on occasion force them to be human shields and die an ignominious death is really their problem, not Israel’s or the world’s. To be sure, that the Western world decided to spin the Hamas election triumph as a victory for good governance, anti-corruption, and (that hoary cliché) the effective provision of social services does not matter in the least. The people knew for whom they were voting – much as the Germans did in 1933 when they gave the Nazis a plurality of their votes. They knew exactly what Hamas stood for and why it was formed in the 1980’s – to eradicate the Jewish state and its Jews.

Be careful for whom you vote.

The Nazi analogy is actually quite apt because it reminds us of the emptiness of the cries of the protesters across the world (who would rejoice – and do rejoice – when Jews are killed) and the sheer vacuity of some statements emanating from the UN and especially from the Obama administration. (By the way, is anything more repugnant that Obama’s repeated assertion that “Israel has the right of self-defense,” as if that is not obvious, as if it is a major concession on his part designed to win him plaudits from liberal Jews, and…as if he has to keep saying it in order to talk himself into it?)

Consider a point made two years ago (the last time Israel briefly invaded Gaza) by PM Netanyahu himself, to a BBC interviewer who castigated him for causing civilian casualties. “Do you really want to go there?” And Netanyahu, to devastating effect, reminded the British viewers of the Allies’ (mostly British) February 1945 firebombing raids on Dresden, Germany, which killed more than 20,000 civilians in just a few days. The Brits perceived this as appropriate recompense, as the Nazis spent two years bombing British civilians. He could mention as well, perhaps for the youthful Jen Psaki’s benefit, that the United States killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians – and rightly so – when two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

It is the first rule of war: civilians die. There are other rules: Truth is a casualty. The innocent suffer (the real innocent). The unexpected happens. The victor uses disproportionate force – in fact, that is usually how and why the winner wins. The evil aggressor should be vanquished, not saved by a hypocritical world to fight another day.

Those are basic rules of war, and only duplicitous, oleaginous Jew-hating purveyors of piffle would deny Israel those rights and seek to amend or repeal the rules of war – and only as they apply to Israel. And they know who they are – from oily politicians and media mackerel, to the Presbyterian Church embarrassing itself in well-deserved irrelevance, to the phony protesters around the world, to those who simply deny Israel’s right to exist. Putin’s allies killed more civilians in one instant with one rocket than Israel has in three weeks – Bashar Assad has killed exponentially more in three years – without evoking the same anger, vitriol, violence and angst. It is selective outrage, phony to the core.

Kudos to real leaders like Canada’s Stephen Harper and the US Congress for their unequivocal support, and to Israel’s government for focusing on countering another Arab attempt to scam the world into sympathy for its “victims,” victims of its own malevolence and suicidal hatred.

There are reasons why these Arabs engender more sympathy than did German or Japanese civilians during World War II. For one, they are fighting against Jews, for whom much of the world labors to find any love gratitude or appreciation. Call it rank Jew-hatred. Primarily, though, that is Israel’s fault, for rather than depict these Arabs as Nazis (or worse: the Nazis wanted to murder Jews, but they preferred not to kill themselves while doing it) Israel persists in designating these Arabs as “partners for peace.” Had the Nazis or Nips been perceived as “partners for peace” rather than subjected to the unrelenting demand for unconditional surrender, they too would have garnered sympathy for their plight.

Unfortunately, the land of Israel hosts Arabs who are largely not partners for peace, nor are they sympathetic characters in the least. They are allies with other Muslims across the globe who are responsible for the mayhem that is engulfing almost every continent – perhaps another reason why even the European and Western governments lack their customary anti-Israel ardor. The world has seen too much suffering caused by Muslims to prompt the usual outcries. It is long past enough.

Add to that another painful fact: those wailing over the deaths of their loved ones are generally the same people urging their children and others to become martyrs, suicide bombers and murderers of Jews. It is impossible for a Western mind to wrap itself around that macabre concept but it is sadly true: in the mind of many of these people, a person killed before he has a chance to kill Jews has really lived a wasted life. Hence the mothers of suicide bombers who “grieve” by expressing their desire that their other children should become martyrs as well. It is a sick death cult, and to the extent that they can be accommodated, they should be accommodated.

One Israeli commentator said years ago that it is the height of cynicism for the Arabs to cry over their civilian losses when their entire strategy is to inflict civilian casualties on Israel through terror. Every rocket or missile they launch has a civilian address on it. It is intended to hit homes, schools, stores and hospitals.

It makes their tears fake and their lament a farce. It should have no effect on any thinking, moral person. It should not – again – induce Israel to abandon its offensive until Gaza is rid of Hamas. It reminds us once again of our Sages’ adage that “he who is merciful to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the merciful.”

Indeed, that is the very epitaph for the Gush Katif expulsion nine years ago. You remember Gush Katif? That is the region from where hundreds of rockets have been fired against Israeli civilians in the last decade.

It is certainly a shame that civilians suffer in wartime, and some civilians are truly innocent and deserve sympathy and protection. Others don’t – not sympathy, deference, comfort, fuel, electricity or food. Let their elected leaders help them. The whole notion of offering “humanitarian” assistance to one’s enemy is foolish, counterproductive, un-Jewish and anti-Torah. Notifying your enemy where you plan on attacking is the height of stupidity and costs Jewish lives, unnecessarily, as it did today. It is a sign that deep within the Netanyahu psyche he still holds out the illusion that this enemy is a “partner for peace.” No nation informs its enemy where it plans on attacking. It is not moral; it is immoral and stupid. If the enemy wants humanitarian help, they should surrender. It would be good for them and for Israel, and for the world, which needs an unequivocal victory over Muslim terror.

Until then, my tears will be reserved for the real innocents, for those who yearn for peace and tranquility to serve their G-d, raise their families, build their homes and their nation, and are forced to fight a merciless foe again and again. Feelings of guilt are unwarranted.

May G-d strengthen the fighting forces of Israel, protect her soldiers from all harm, and guide her to victory with pride, understanding and majesty.

News of the Weak

       For the third time this year, Israel has freed more than two dozen Arab terrorists, murderers among them, despite the fact that many were sentenced to life imprisonment. This mockery of justice is the price that Israel paid for the privilege of negotiating the surrender of its ancestral, divinely-ordained land to its enemy – a classic lose-lose situation. The question is not why theses outrages typify the Israeli government; that has been discussed already. The other challenging question is how does PM Binyamin Netanyahu retain  his popularity while presiding over such a government whose weaknesses rival that of any left-wing government (classic Likud) and whose diplomatic policies on absolutely critical matters of state remain a deep mystery to his citizens? Even in the midst of this week’s terrorist joy fest, his poll ratings are up and his party would be projected to win even more seats if Knesset elections were held today. How is that possible?

    There are several possibilities, especially the obvious. Despite the loud and justifiable protests of bereaved families and sensible Israelis, most of the country simply doesn’t care. Sure, they will express sympathy, some regret, and perhaps even shed a tear along with the relatives of the murdered who get to watch their loved one’s murderers feted as heroes by the barbarians in suits who threaten them – but, at the end of the day, they remain unaffected by it. They can still go to shul and/or work in the morning, have a pleasant lunch, earn a nice living, return to their families at night, and be thankful that the savages have been kept at bay another day. That the gargoyles who cheerfully stabbed and shot children, women and men to death are now free to resume their mayhem in Israeli society (for some, literally; five were released to their homes in East Jerusalem and have unfettered access throughout Israel) does not affect them in the slightest. Until it does.

    And yet, the polls show a substantial – even overwhelming –number of Israelis, both religious and secular, opposed to these releases. The tactic is considered absurd, senseless, immoral and foolish. So how can the Israeli public vehemently oppose these releases and yet support the Prime Minister who is allowing them? (Granted that the peculiar nature of the Israeli parliamentary system is such that even with his increased poll numbers, Netanyahu and his party attract a little more than 27% of the vote.)

The answer lies in one of the most extraordinary turnarounds in political history, and a master stroke that should be studied by political scientists for years to come. Netanyahu has brilliantly fashioned a second term in office that has obscured and obliterated memories of the failures of his first. How?

The Prime Minister has always been a man of words – in both Hebrew and English – articulate, passionate, even glib on occasion. He spent his first term trying to convince everyone who would listen that he knows what is best. He was interviewed constantly, and spoke frequently. He was accessible, and considered it his duty to explain his government’s policies. He thereby opened himself to constant analysis and attack.

Those days are long gone, and it is hard to recall a politician who has similarly been able to hide in plain sight as does Binyamin Netanyahu. He rarely gives interviews, and almost never to the hostile, leftist Israeli media. He controls his message with astonishing discipline. When he appears on camera, it is always to talk tough (like after a rocket or terrorist attack). His words are rationed carefully. He never expresses public weakness. He is never caught speaking off camera, with a live microphone. Sure, he will repeat the tripe (I hope it’s the tripe) about “painful sacrifices.” But was it the PM who announced the release of more terrorist-murderers? No. Was it Netanyahu who had to hear the laments and the taunts – in his past writings, he was adamantly and eloquently opposed to such releases – of the families of the victims of terror protesting outside the PM’s official? No. He was conveniently out of town, and when he wanted to return, he had the local police disperse the protesters.

Remarkably, he has rendered himself immune from criticism for his own policies. He is never heard advocating them, he never needs to defend them, and the people only hear, and repeatedly, the strident clichés about Israel’s might and willingness to use it. His coalition partners largely silence themselves to avoid being banished to the political wilderness. The notoriously rambunctious Israeli media has been defanged, grasping at straws that dissipate in the wind, desperate for access, and frustrated that they have been marginalized. Even leaks disappear without a trace, because there is no official comment – neither confirmation nor denial. Nothing!

Thus, he has perfected the incredibly transparent maneuver of mollifying the right-wing by offering – again, again, and again – the sop of proposing to maybe offer more tenders to perhaps build more apartments in Judea and Samaria sometime down the road unless events force him to allow underlings to retract his commitments when few are paying attention. And they fall for it, every time. Not long ago, after a terrorist attack in Hevron, Netanyahu in response vowed to allow Israelis to move into a building they had purchased years ago, whose occupancy is currently being held up by the Defense Ministry. The vow was vintage Netanyahu – public, bold, and forceful. And the retraction just days later was also vintage Netanyahu – muted, muffled, announced through lowly officials and leaving the aggrieved with no recourse.

And, for some reason, all that remains in the public mind is the strong Netanyahu, which is nothing less than the projection of their own wishful thinking.

It is clear that Israel’s justice system has collapsed under the weight of Israel’s political class. No terrorist should feel any sense of deterrence – certainly not lengthy incarceration for his dastardly crimes. The enemy has already announced there will be no peace until ALL terrorists are freed, and, of course, they are people of their word, as well as their sword. It has become a moral wrong to incarcerate for long the murderers of Jews in the Jewish state.

In such an environment, the people themselves are on notice. There was a time when Israelis would rush to defend a captured terrorist from an angry mob, preferring the civility of the judicial system to the wrath of the rabble. They would have to be fools to show such restraint these days. The decisions of the judiciary matter little when the politicians – who ensconce themselves in multiple layers of protection – overrule the sentences of the guilty. Indeed, one can make a compelling moral argument for dispatching the terrorists before the politicians get their claws on the jailhouse keys. If the independent judiciary is largely irrelevant to the ultimate fate of these murderers, then their fate truly rests in the hands of a majority of the citizenry at any given time. That is politics. The people who capture a terrorist have every right to make the political decision on their own to put an end to the career of the miscreant.

The other possibility – much less likely, unfortunately – would be the execution of every terrorist involved in the murder or attempted murder of an Israeli citizen or tourist. On some level, that would satisfy the Palestinian demand that Israeli jails not detain a single Arab terrorist. More importantly, it would be just. It would deter. It would relieve the Israeli public from having to constantly relive the nightmare of seeing murderers walk free, dance, sing and celebrate the weakness of their own elected leaders.

Those who fear that another surrender – Oslo III – is on the horizon should pay attention. If Netanyahu could not withstand the inducements to perpetrate something as immoral and preposterous as freeing murderers for absolutely no reason other than that those who sent them on their missions insisted on it, he will not be able to withstand the blandishments – or the ballyhoo – of signing ceremonies, White House meetings, handshakes, international acclaim (however temporary), and Israeli media adulation.

And the terror that will inevitably follow? Not to fear. The murderers will be freed before anyone notices, in the dead of night, with the PM’s fingerprints nowhere to be found.

Dynamic Orthodoxy

     Recently, I stumbled on an article written by Professor Mordechai Breuer in an old issue of Hamaayan (Tammuz, 1999, 39:4) about Orthodoxy in the 19th century. Much of what we “know,” in retrospect, turns out to be false, including the very term Orthodox. Conventional wisdom teaches that the term was applied to religious Jews by our ideological foes, and was meant pejoratively. In fact, Professor Breuer demonstrates, the term was first used by the German theologian Johann David Michaelis as a friendly reference to Moses Mendelsohn, who then began using the term in his writings about Jewish life. The expression, meaning “correct belief,” has defined Torah Jewry for at least 150 years.
     What was especially fascinating about Prof. Breuer’s article was the description of the efforts made by the rabbis in the early 19th century to accommodate the nascent Reform movement so as to avert a schism in the Jewish people. Innovations were made and deviations were accepted, all for the greater good, although, in fact, not in major areas of Halacha. For example, no less an authority than Rav Yaakov Etlinger (the Aruch Laner) conducted Bat Mitzvot in his shul, and Rav Natan Adler of Hanover (later Chief Rabbi of the British Empire) told anxious questioners to obey a new German edict that prohibited Jews from burying their dead until 48 hours after death.
     Chacham Isaac Bernays (a rebbe of Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch) specifically chose the title “Chacham” to imply that he was a different type of spiritual leader, and permitted “modern” (it was 1835, after all) brides who objected to circling their grooms under the chupah simply to stand put. Confirmed Orthodox rabbis – like Rav Hirsch – wore ceremonial robes and preached in German, certainly to the horror of Eastern European rabbis. All of the above were staunch opponents of Reform Judaism.
     One reason for the openness was because all rabbis (except the Chatam Sofer) supported the Emancipation and knew that the fall of the ghetto walls would offer both risks and opportunities. They tried to present a more modern face to Torah and thereby keep even less observant but nominally “Orthodox” Jews in the fold as well as those leaning towards Reform. Unfortunately, these outreach efforts to Reform ultimately failed and all efforts were abandoned after the Reform held a conference at Braunschweig in 1844 in which they renounced fundamental principles of Judaism and gave up any pretense of adherence to tradition.
   Nonetheless, the innovations in Orthodoxy in the 1800’s – its sheer vitality and ability to adapt to the times – puts paid to the notion that the Torah world is frozen, frigid, unresponsive and archaic, all criticisms that one still hears today from people who find fault with the Torah and desire to conform its laws to the times. Prof. Breuer counts at least eight innovations or movements that transformed Orthdoxy in the 19th century, and most of them are still influential today.
1) Chasidut, which although technically arose in the 18th century, was perfectly placed to retain the allegiance of Jews who were not drawn to the study of Torah and provided a powerful emotional hook to lure in Jews who would otherwise stray.
2) The Yeshiva movement, started by Rav Chaim Volozhin in Volozhin in 1804, revolutionized the study of Torah. It was originally a counter force to Chasidut, but made Talmud Torah into a national project and desideratum (rather than just a local matter) and inspired many imitators across Europe.
3) The Musar movement of Rav Yisrael Salanter endeavored to permeate Jewish life with ethical sensitivity in a systemized, rather than informal, way. The study of ethics because a routine feature in many yeshivot, even as others resisted the encroachment on general Torah study.
4) Torah and Derech Eretz of Rav Hirsch was designed to make the modern world less frightening to the Jew. He taught and inspired generations that one can be a faithful Jew and still be part of the modern world – all of which was his response to the opportunities of Emancipation.
5) Formal rabbinical training  was unknown before the 19th century. The spiritual leader simply learned Torah and was sent to lead a community. The German rabbinate – credit here Rav Azriel Hildesheimer – pioneered the rabbinical seminary in which students would learn Torah and general knowledge, and acquire the skills necessary for leadership.
6) Scientific study of Jewish subjects, a matter fraught with danger, also attracted its share of religious proponents, and due to the emancipation, Jews for the first time in large numbers attended university. Additionally, professions like law, medicine, engineering,etc., historically limited to Jews,  now provided avenues out of the poverty in which most Jews were forced to live.
7) The land of Israel was reborn to Jews in the 19th century and at first was primarily a religious movement. Disciples of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov made Aliya in the early 1800’s, and Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer already in 1840 exhorted Jews to return to Israel and reclaim our homeland. Zionism was perceived as a positive venture until the movement was taken over by opponents of Torah and the new yishuv advocated outright disobedience to Torah norms.
8) Women’s Torah education began in the 19th century in Germany, and then approximately 1920 in Poland with the Beis Yaakov movement. While there was little formal elementary education for boys in the 1800’s, there was almost none for girls. The advent of mandatory education for all necessitated this change, which revolutionized Jewish life as well.
    It turns out that the 19th century was hardly a time of stagnation for Jews but an era of immense vibrancy and growth. Jews in the 20th and now the 21st centuries have essentially built on the accomplishments of those giants. And lest one think that Orthodoxythen was lively but has become dormant in the last century, perish the thought: what are some of the great successes of the Torah world in the last 100 years? Certainly a more educated laity is at the top of the list, followed by the prominence of Orthodox Jews in every profession and endeavor, and the gradual permeation by the Jewish state of the ethos of Torah – including the development of the Orthodox soldier (the scholar-warrior), something not widely seen in Jewish life for almost two millennia, and others as well.
    It is uncanny – certainly G-d’s hand – that the Torah has been rejuvenated, and the Am Hashem is again dynamic. Our obligation then is to anticipate the challenges of the future and craft the appropriate response, to glorify the Creator, His Torah and His people.

The Few v. The Many

One of the more unheralded, even obscured, aspects of Chanuka is this question: where were the Jews? We exult in the notion that the victory came about miraculously – rabim beyad me’atim – with the few defeating the many. But why were the Maccabees the few and the Syrians the many? In every struggle for national liberation, the indigenous population is always more numerous than the occupying army, otherwise they do not constitute a nation and likely could not prevail. For example, the Jews before 1948 and the American colonists during the Revolutionary War both outnumbered the British occupiers. How could they not? Part of the problem of being an invader is that the native population is always more numerous. So what happened here that the Maccabees (never numbering more than several thousand, and at the beginning totaling in the hundreds) were the “few” who defeated the “many”?

The sad answer is that the “many” included not only the Syrian tyrant and his military forces but also the Hellenistic Jews who supported them. They were the “evildoers given over to the righteous” and the “brazen vanquished by those were faithful to Your Torah.” But why did the Hellenistic Jews want the Syrian-Greeks to win? Granted, they were imbued with the Hellenistic spirit – but what happened to their patriotism, their national spirit, and their sense of kinship with their fellow Jews?

Perhaps they were realists – and did not see any way in which the small band of guerillas could defeat the world’s most powerful army. So they made their peace with the devil. Such “realism” flies in the face of Jewish history – so they too were defeated. But there is another type of realism that is probably even more harmful.

As the Jewish world continues to fragment, we have grown accustomed to a painful mindset that is pervasive among certain segments of Jewry. For sure, there have always been pro-Arab Jews – Jews who cast their lot with our enemies. Many of the Israel’s most prominent and hateful critics are Jews who become willful tools of those who wish to destroy the Jewish state and bitterly oppose any expression of Jewish nationalism. Some of them traditionally write for the New York Times. Indeed, one of the quickest routes to media fame is to be a Jew critical of Israel in front of non-Jewish audiences.

Add to that list the deleterious phenomenon of the “moral equalizers,” those who see fault on both sides, who criticize Israel for any act of self-defense and weep at the suffering of our enemies – suffering for which our enemies themselves are usually the catalysts. This group is always seeking “peace” (meaning a treaty signing; what happens after is of little concern), strutting about with a faux moral supremacy that them, enlightened ones that they are, to see both sides, to see all sides. They lament, in the words of one, the entrenched “narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator,” eschewing a greater concern for their own people than for our enemies. As the writer Cynthia Ozick once noted, in many cases, “universalism has become the particularism of the Jews.”

But shouldn’t we care about our children more than about someone else’s children, or our parents more than another’s parents? Shouldn’t Jews be able to feel more loyalty to Jews before any feelings of loyalty to mankind? After all, that is the essence of nationhood and the hallmark of a people that sees itself as family.

Surely there were Hellenistic Jews who thought that the Maccabees could not defeat the mighty Syrian army – and there’s no sense in fighting a futile, suicidal war. Make peace with them, whatever it takes – and there are Jews today who believe the same thing. Compromise, concede, and hope for the best. That is one group of “realists” who maintain that when you cannot win – by traditional analysis – then don’t fight. Give up.

But there is another group of Hellenists. They don’t necessarily believe that the Maccabees cannot win; rather they believe that the Maccabees (or Israel) should not win. They think that winning is immoral. They are so permeated with a foreign culture and alien ideas that they do not want to win. They would rather lose and die and be perceived as virtuous, than triumph and live and be perceived as morally unfit by the cultural elites of the society in which they live.

And that is the dangerous world in which we live. Israel’s might is muted and its ability even to speak of victory is muffled when it has accepts the limitations placed upon it as well as the narrative of the impossibility of victory, the inevitability of two states, and – for many – the morality that exists on both sides – victim and aggressor, lover of all mankind and the hater of all mankind, and especially the Jews. Even the hater, after all, is a “child of G-d.”

This is why the Hellenist Jews fought against the Maccabees and preferred the Greeks, and it is why Israel cannot even fantasize about victory over its enemies, much less plan strategically for it. But that victory, that spirit, is the very essence of Chanuka, and the exhortation of the prophet Zecharia that our wars are not won with might or force – but with the spirit of G-d that animates our lives, preserves our morality, and will guide us to victory over all our enemies that will culminate in the rebuilt and rededicated Bet Hamikdash.

The Rise of the Neo-Cons

No one wants machloket (strife).
That admirable sentiment, a defining characteristic of Jewish personal and national life, to a large extent underlies the silence with which the major Orthodox Jewish organizations (outside the more Yeshivish world) has greeted the unremitting slide from normative Torah views of the groups, loosely affiliated but interrelated, and collectively known as YCT/IRF/Maharat. Collectively, they refer to themselves as “Open Orthodoxy,” but at what point does the “openness” so predominate that it ceases to be Orthodox?
Consider: Whatever semantic games are played, the ordination of women as Jewish clergy shatters one of the demarcations between the Torah world and non-Orthodoxy. Even Rabbi Saul Lieberman, the great scholar who taught for decades at JTS, publicly opposed (in writing) the ordination of women, such that JTS waited for him to pass from this world before it ordained its first women. Of course, the charade – Rabba, Maharat, whatever – is conducted in order to avoid an open break, even as it smacks of dishonesty. But it is what it is, and we are foolish to play the games and ignore the reality. The titles, job descriptions and current subterfuge presage the day when these groups will boast (and I mean boast) synagogues whose spiritual leader is a woman, something considered anathema – for a variety of reasons grounded in Jewish law and thought – by the aforementioned Rabbi Lieberman, Rav Soloveitchick and every recognized posek faithful to the Mesorah. Even Nechama Leibowitz would cringe in revulsion and horror at this obvious deviation from Jewish law and tradition. (I was her student, and she was scrupulously traditional, and humble to a fault. And she did not live with grievances against the Torah.)
Consider as well the variety of statements and positions emanating – without obvious dissent – from members of those groups:
– the constant repetition of the familiar canard (that animated the non-Orthodox movements) that Judaism treats women as “second-class citizens;”
– the denigration in some places, and reluctant acceptance by others, of the institution of mechitza (kept, it seems, because it is part of the Orthodox “brand,” but in some places minimized, removed at various times during the davening, and bound to be on the chopping block in the future, especially since it is not mentioned explicitly in the Shulchan Aruch);
– the embrace of the homosexual agenda, and its essential elimination as a “sin,” as one of the 613 commandments and 365 prohibitions pursuant to Jewish law, including the celebration, in one form or another, of same sex marriage;
– the attempted relaxation of conversion standards, so as to decrease the number of intermarriages while foisting on the Jewish people converts who have not the slightest intention of observing the mitzvot – in the process doing them a great disservice;
– the embrace of non-Orthodox clergy and their integration into religious services in unprecedented ways that completely eviscerate the ideological distinctions between the movements;
– the search for the lenient halachic opinion that will rationalize any desire, regardless of precedent or tradition; i.e., predetermining the conclusion and then seeking justification for it;
– the study of Tanach in a way that degrades the ancients and plays down the commentaries of the Talmudic Sages and medieval commentators, as if all opinions carry equal weight, and as if there is a mitzva in discovering new sins or exaggerating old ones in the deeds of our ancestors. It is a “scientific” approach much more prevalent in the non-Orthodox world than in the Torah world.
(Generally, the New York Times’ editorial page is a reliable indicator –if not the source – of the social perspectives and views of this camp, but that is a different discussion.)
Taken on its merits, almost all the views above are closely identified with the non-Orthodox movements, which either began with those deviations or embraced them along the way.
Why, then, the reluctance to call a spade a spade? Several objections can be made.
First, they call themselves “Orthodox,” thereby identifying with the Orthodox world. That is important, because it evinces their intention to remain Orthodox even as they, for lack of a better word, try to reform it from within. Second, many of the leaders are musmachim of RIETS or YU grads, see themselves as Orthodox, and practice the norms of Orthodox life even if some of their ideas are off the reservation. Third, almost all of the individuals that I personally know involved in these groups are fine, decent people, for whom I have always had tremendous respect, and whose contributions to the Jewish people – in some cases – were legendary and worthy of eternal recognition. And who wants machloket?
Here’s the problem with that: the same could be said of the founders of Conservative Judaism and their successors who broadened its popularity across the United States up to 30-40 years ago. Most of the founders of CJ were also Orthodox in practice, and more. One of the founders of JTS, Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes, also served as one of the presidents of the Orthodox Union (such is unimaginable today). JTS was founded by traditional Jews, like Rabbi Sabato Morais, horrified by the gross retreat from Jewish norms of the Reform Rabbinate. The aforementioned Rabbi Shaul Lieberman was allegedly offered a teaching position at Yeshivas Chaim Berlin (!) in Brooklyn, before deciding to take the position at JTS (such is unimaginable today). Whatever the results, the founders of Conservative Judaism meant to conserve Judaism; hence, the name. (Given their current politics, some probably wince when using the term, and wish they could be called “Liberal Judaism” instead.) The point is that they perceived themselves as the vanguard of what would be traditional, Torah-true Judaism on American soil.
For the first half-century after the founding of the Conservative movement, it was quite common for YU graduates to attend JTS for ordination. It was not uncommon for RIETS musmachim to become spiritual leaders in Conservative temples, like it was not uncommon for those same musmachim to be members of the RCA, like it was not uncommon for some OU shuls not to have mechitzot. (This is meant to be factual, not judgmental; the battles then were different than they are today.)
And undoubtedly, many of the founders of the non-Orthodox movements were upstanding and decent people as well. Their sincerity and dedication – and in many cases their scholarship – should be acknowledged. Reform and Conservative rabbis also wrote responsa, marshaling sources here and there to permit what they wanted to permit: the elimination of the mechitza, the permission to “ride” (but not “drive”) on Shabbat, and the series of feminist responsa on which the current group of Neo-Conservatives relies so heavily, permitting consecutively, and in short order, women counting in the minyan, leading the minyan, and serving as rabbis of the minyan. Those responsa were clever, often misleading or disingenuous, and other times relied on that old shibboleth that “times have changed.” But no Halachist took them seriously. And a more traditional wing often filed dissenting reports.
It must also be acknowledged that, like then, some in today’s fringe groups don’t really belong there, wince at some of the halachic and hashkafic departures from Orthodoxy, and are basically stuck, not really in a position to renounce their semicha but very well aware that their past choices might have been misguided.
This is written in pain and with a heavy heart. No one wants machloket. But emet (truth) is also a value – a profound value, especially in relation to Torah. A well known talk-show host often says that he prefers “clarity to agreement.” Clarity is especially critical when it comes to articulating Torah positions, and certain positions taken by these groups – as outlined above – are clearly beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. Not to admit that is to acquiesce through silence in the ongoing distortion and disfigurement of the Torah. And to acquiesce in silence while the Torah is being reformed and transformed – essentially to conform to a modern, liberal agenda – is to betray our calling as Rabbis and teachers of Torah. To acquiesce in silence, which for the most part has been the default position of the leading modern Orthodox organizations (aside from the occasional mild rebuke), is to make a political decision, but one that has adverse consequences for the Torah world.
Jews have to know what is right and wrong, acceptable or unacceptable; Jews have to know when we say “these and these are the words of the Living God,” and when we say that something else is not drawn from that holy wellspring; Jews have to know that there are “seventy facets to the Torah,” but there is also a 71st or 72nd facet that is not part of the Torah. The Torah is not an intellectual free-for-all, or a document that can be twisted in every generation to satisfy the emotional vagaries or psychological moods of the faithful. It is God’s word, and, indeed, it is not given over to every individual or group to interpret. And to acquiesce in silence is to leave every Orthodox Rabbi susceptible to the pressure from the lobbyists for these causes to replicate these innovations in our shuls because, if there was anything improper about them, someone would have opposed it publicly. Let the censure begin.
For all intents and purposes, the Conservative and Reform movements have merged, certainly in practice if not in theory. A new movement has taken the place of the Conservative movement of a century ago, founded and popularized by some fine people, worthy of respect in many regards, but whose spiritual world-view and halachic conclusions are at variance with the Torah world that we know and cherish. It is eerily similar to the world view (and practices) of the original CJ movement. The ramifications of this conclusion– in terms of conversions, kashrut, edut, etc. – are enormous, which makes the heartbreak that much greater. And certainly, one complication is that there are some –I’ve met them – who nominally belong to these groups but subscribe to none or almost none of the agenda and the deviations. This, too, will need clarification.
Ultimately, I wish to include, not exclude, but also to clarify, not obfuscate. Some will want to re-trace their steps and are welcome, and others won’t because they sincerely believe they are on the right track. Some will bask in the adulation of the secular Jewish media, as if that means anything, and others in the number of the committed who rejoice in all their revelries – as if Jews have never before rejoiced in inappropriate revelries.
But even before deciding on the next steps, clarity and honesty at least demand that we recognize before our eyes the creation of a new movement in Jewish life outside the Orthodox world, one that we have seen before. It can be termed, with due apologies to the late Irving Kristol, Neo-Conservatism. “Open Orthodoxy” is a deceptive brand name, an advertising slogan, and an attempt to remain tethered to the Torah world to re-shape it from within, but far from the reality.
The reality is that we are living through the rise of the Neo-Conservatives. Let us all – on all sides – at least admit it.

Back to Egypt

The shock waves in Israeli society due to the controversy of “equality of burden” – work and army service as it relates to Haredim – have generated much commotion, excitement, trepidation, anger, and some very, very strange statements. Topping the list is this refrain, allegedly uttered by some prominent Roshei Yeshiva, that essentially says: “if any such evil decrees pass that threaten to undermine, weaken or even change the Haredi program of Talmud Torah, then we will have no choice but to return to Russia and Poland.”
In fact, such an assertion was first made at least 15 years ago by a leading Rosh Yeshiva, when similar proposals for Haredi service, work, reduced child allowances and curriculum reform were made back then. The sentiment is certainly understandable. In a community that feels that it has achieved the apex of spirituality – duplicating the grandeurs of Eastern European Jewry – undoubtedly a retreat from the current ideal is perceived as a dire threat to its future. Better, then, to return to the glory days of the shtetl where the Czar and other rulers allowed the Jews to dwell in peace and tranquility, each man under his vine and fig tree. The statement is thus almost Biblical in its audacity.
Actually, it is Biblical.
Several times during our sojourn in the wilderness, when the going got tough and sin diverted us from our cherished objective of settling the land of Israel, a variety of leaders, in their discontent with Moshe’s stewardship of the nation, exclaimed (sometimes implicitly) “Nitna rosh v’nashuva Mitzroima!” – “Let us appoint a leader and we will return to Egypt!” (Bamidbar 14:4). Even on the banks of the Red Sea, days after being liberated from the Egyptian house of bondage, there were voices crying that it is “far better that we serve Egypt than die in the wilderness” (Shemot 14:12). At least for the latter, the threat of imminent death was real, even if their faith was somewhat tenuous. The lure of Egypt, contrived and fictitious as it was, was ubiquitous.
Yet, for all the nostalgia for Egypt from group of malcontents– its foods, ambience, family life, beaches and resorts, all of which caused the horrors of slavery and persecution, and the murder of their male infants, to fade – no one ever actually attempted to return to Egypt. Those disenchanted after the sin of the spies decided to conquer the land of Israel without authorization, and failed – but there was never an actual movement to return to Egypt. It was a rhetorical device that packed an emotional wallop in its criticism of present trends but was never taken seriously by anyone. If so, why was it said? Why would something so preposterous resonate with anyone to the extent that the Torah would record it?
Surely, no one takes seriously “threats” of returning to Poland, Russia, Germany and elsewhere. Besides the facts that those countries also have mandatory conscription (do Jews forget the Cantonist decrees?!) as well as little interest in subsidizing Torah study as does the State of Israel, the gruesome memories are still raw. Those are countries that are drenched in Jewish blood, in which six million Jews were murdered just seven decades ago, and from which several million Jews fled in the half-century before that – primarily to the United States but also to South Africa, South America, England, Australia, and yes, the land of Israel. Eastern Europe became a graveyard for Jews, certainly physically but also, it needs to be said, spiritually as well.
For all its glories, and the majesty of the Yeshiva movement in Lithuania that inspires us until today, it was relatively small in numbers. The largest of the yeshivot barely numbered in the low hundreds of students at the peak of their existence, and most were far smaller than that. Most Jews were unlearned, and many completely dropped out of the world of Torah observance (far more in percentage than what we witness today with our so-called “youth at risk”), as evidenced by the substantial numbers of Jews that abandoned even their nominal observance the moment they arrived on American shores. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were swept away from Torah by the Enlightenment, Communism, Socialism, and secular Zionism. The nostalgia has no basis in fact, like our memories in later years of the home runs that we never slugged as young men but thought we did.
Worse, one reason those movements took root in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the grinding poverty of the “Haredi” world of that time that attempted to glamorize privation and suffering but found that they weren’t quite as marketable as they hoped. Rather than provide a kosher means to escape ghetto life and poverty, many leaders closed the gates and erected even more interior walls, with the result that many Jews just upped and left – Torah, not just Europe. Are they making the same mistake again today? Embracing policies that consistently lead to poverty and the need for public support – from a public that is less and less willing to provide – is not a recipe for long-term success. Hence, the warning that if pushed, they will leave and take their indigence with them to other shores.
The idle threat intoned in the wilderness to return to Egypt was not serious – except for this: it reflected a desire to escape their destiny as Jews and to somehow carve out a different destiny for themselves. “Going back to Egypt” meant severing one’s spiritual and emotional ties to the rest of the people of Israel, as if to say: “the rest of you are on your own. We want nothing to do with you, neither your honey nor your sting. We are a nation unto ourselves. Good luck.”
Is that the message that is being sent today as well? I would hope not, both because it won’t succeed and especially because it is such a poor reflection on Torah Jewry.
Count me among those who believe that threats of incarceration for Haredi resisters are wrong, misplaced, counterproductive and will not succeed. But those who in their anguish about the need to change certain aspects of Haredi life in order to be a part of the nation in all respects do a disservice to their constituents and the Torah itself when they make idle threats that sound – and are – bizarre and outlandish, and not to be taken seriously.
Thus, we are taught: “Wise men: be careful with your words, lest you become liable for exile and you are exiled to the place of evil waters, and your disciples who follow you will drink those waters and die, and the name of Heaven will be desecrated” (Avot 1:11).

Blood and Stones

Watch this first, and what follows will make more sense and hopefully evoke a sense of outrage:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xP79-4OKZ8s.
It was produced by a former Teaneck resident and Bnai Yeshurun member who now lives in Judea.

In the last several months, the Arabs of the land of Israel have again been up in arms, and more frequently, up to their arms in rocks and stones. Their attacks on innocent Jewish civilian travelers have escalated, such that stone-throwing, the shattering of windshields, windows and the propagation of terror, have become commonplace, daily events. Much of this has been intentionally kept under the radar so as not to have to induce a forceful response by the government. Last year, a man and his infant son were murdered south of Hevron by a windshield shattered by a rock thrown by an Arab that caused him to lose consciousness, crash and die. An infant remains in a coma for more than two months, her injuries the result of stone-throwing that caused her mother to lose control of her vehicle driving on Highway 5 from Tel Aviv to Ariel. Last month, a beautiful soul – pious, friendly and giving – was wantonly stabbed to death by an Arab at Tapuach Junction.
Most of the incidents have occurred south of Jerusalem, some north, but there is also regular stoning on Highway 443, the alternate road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that passes Modiin, and was naively and venally reopened to Arab traffic by the High Court of “Justice” just last year. (One of Modiin’s rabbis had his car smashed just last month.) Are the bad old days coming back?
Israelis are debating whether a third “intifada” is beginning. They should first stop using the Arabic word “intifada,” purposely chosen by the Arabs because it means not revolt but “shaking off.” It is as if to say, Israel is like dandruff that needs to be shaken off one’s lapel in order to be presentable. Use of the term implies that it is unnatural and unacceptable for Jews to be living in the land of Israel, so of course the Arab enemy employs it. Apparently, so do unthinking Jews. Let us call this what it is: a recurrence of the civil war for the land of Israel. Like the first several such civil wars, the Israelis have not yet joined the battle and attacks remain unilateral and do not yet generate a response.
Like in the bad old days, this has precipitated occasional closure of roads – like the tunnel road south of Jerusalem – when stoning becomes heavy. Drivers become accustomed to peculiar Israeli weather reports – “forecast today is partly sunny with a chance of a shower of rocks and stones, depending on your location.” South of Gush Etzion has become especially treacherous. The sorry scenes of the last war – IDF soldiers fleeing a hail of stones, or cowering in their jeep as it is being smashed – are reappearing for those who care to watch.
There is as yet no response. Drivers are told to avoid certain areas or roads, or not travel at certain times of the day or night. The army could exercise control but does not, barred by its civilian commanders from doing anything productive. Israel’s government has calculated – as it did in the 1990s and until 2002 – to tolerate a certain amount of dead and maimed Jews in order to achieve some of its broader goals – international consensus to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities being primary today. There is also the sense that the Arabs want to distract the world from the ongoing massacres in Syria and the unrest in Egypt and elsewhere by provoking that old Arab bogeyman – Israel – into attacking Arabs. The Arabs have made the macabre and accurate calculation that the world will tolerate tens of thousands of Syrians killed by Arabs but the world will not stand by silently while an Israeli police officer tickets an Arab driver for speeding. Some outrages cannot be left unchallenged.
Meanwhile, life in much of Israel becomes less livable, and morale in the army begins to decline again. The Arabs become more and more emboldened and brazen. Rocks and stones become Molotov cocktails and bombs; that has already happened. IEDs can’t be far behind – a new Muslim gift to mankind. This is a bad movie that has been played ad infinitum, and its run was only canceled last time after the Park Hotel Pesach eve suicide bombing in Netanya in March 2002 that killed 30 Jews and wounded more than a hundred others. Must the Jewish people endure another 1000 dead to chase the chimera of world approval?
It seems the government and the military have decreed that rock-throwing is not a life-threatening act, notwithstanding that it was officially adjudicated as such when a judge sentenced to life imprisonment the rock-throwing murderers of the aforementioned Asher Palmer and his infant son Yonatan. Of course a stone tossed at a speeding vehicle endangers the lives of all those in that vehicle as well as others on the roads at that time. That is common sense. Should a driver therefore be allowed to run over a rock-thrower rather than absorb his blow? It would seem like elementary self-defense, a basic Jewish and human right.
An American president said once (at a campaign rally): “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” (Did Barack Obama really say that? Yes, on June 13, 2008. He was talking about Republicans, who evidently did not construe him as Nixon with a brighter smile.) Inspired by him as so many have been, the solution to the current crisis seems clear. Obviously, the military possesses the tools and discipline to thwart the deadly stone-throwing and they should. The rules of engagement that handicap the IDF should be changed –and so should the rules governing civilian confrontations and limiting civilian possession of weapons. There is a war going on, after all.
One of the most lamentable aspects of the Arab method of waging war is that they afford themselves the right and religious duty to murder civilians while their own civilians must remain sacrosanct. It has also been a familiar pattern: they play by the rules of Middle Eastern butchery when they are the aggressors (as when they attack Jews and Americans), and wail about the violation of Western norms and values when their own civilians are killed, even accidentally (as in Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan). The media constantly fall for this duplicitous game; normal, thinking people should stop playing it.
Does this mean that proud, militant Jews should start stoning Arab vehicles? No, of course not, perish the thought, who would even suggest such a thing? We do know that the asymmetry of unilateral attacks on civilians by only one side to a conflict is demoralizing, not spiritually elevating as some have argued. There is nothing particularly moral about dying, and especially not when the deaths could have been prevented. And we know as well that even one shattered windshield on an Arab vehicle will bring the wrath of the Israeli government – finally, they act! – on the perpetrators, and will make headline news internationally in a way that 1000 Syrians murdered by other Arabs has not and will not. But wouldn’t fairness dictate that a blind eye be turned to all stone-throwing, if the policy deems it more or less innocuous? We shall see.
To date, the intellectuals and politicians who ruminate about such matters have termed the Arab violence “low-level,” unworthy of a response, especially since it doesn’t affect them. Undoubtedly, and most tragically, there will be, G-d forbid, some horrific incident in which a well known person, or entire family, is murdered on the roads. Official spokesmen will react with fury, the army will be called into action, and philosophers will philosophize about the will of G-d. But it is all so preventable – with force, resolve, determination, will and a strong and fearless hand.
When that day comes and the politicians shed crocodile tears at the funerals and gnash their teeth about another Jewish family destroyed, they should first point the finger of blame at the evildoers who dwell in the land of Israel and desire nothing more than Jewish blood.
And then, to share the blame, they should take a good look in the mirror.
Those who don’t believe that day is coming, G-d forbid, should watch the video clip again.