Category Archives: Jewish History

The Torah Imperative

On the festival of Shavuot, we saturate ourselves with Torah study, all very worthwhile and understandable. The Torah is “our life and the length of our days” (Devarim  30:20). But how is it our life, and how is “life” different from “length of days”?

We are living in remarkable times, and so we too often take for granted what we have today and what we have accomplished. In many ways, we are dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants, benefiting from the greatness of prior generations.

At the turn of the last century, the situation was dire for Torah Jewry. Upwards of 90% of immigrants to the United States gave up the observance of mitzvot, and of their children an even greater percentage. Shabbat was lost, as people were forced to work on Saturdays. Kashrut was in many places a joke, a scandal and a source of corruption, with many people relying on anything that had Hebrew letters on it, if they cared at all. Jewish education was almost non-existent.

Harry Fischel, one of the great builders of Torah in America, wrote that when he came to America he was told to forget about G-d and religion, and especially about Shabbat and kashrut. “You must work every day including the Sabbath and eat what you can eat, for G-d has been left on the other side of the ocean.” He begged to differ.

So how did we get from that dire situation to today’s world, in which, for all our grievances and all our trepidation about the Jewish future,  we are living in infinitely better circumstances with a flourishing Torah world ? What changed? What always changes Jews: Torah. From Yeshiva Etz Chaim to RIETS to Yeshiva College to Torah Vadaas and Torah U’Mesorah, and then high schools and elementary schools and Batei Midrash, the seeds of Torah were planted. The few Jews to whom it mattered were pioneers and revolutionaries – literally, “it was a tree of life to those who grasped it.” Because of their courage and self-sacrifice, we exist and thrive, overseeing Torah enterprises and enjoying a Torah renaissance that was unimaginable 100 years ago.

We are not accustomed to such self-sacrifice, indeed reluctant to rein in any impulse or desire just because we have accepted the Torah. Note the hoopla over the so-called “kosher switch,” because, you know, it is really too demanding to expect people to keep lights on or set a clock in advance.   Ask people to dress modestly? That, today, is “kill but don’t transgress!” Embrace the traditional morality of the Torah? No, we do not encroach on people’s freedoms, desires and self-expression. That is too big a sacrifice, too much to ask. That is a major weakness of our generation.

But at the heart of any Jewish community, at the foundation of Jewish life generally, is Torah, and especially the study of Torah. It is the secret to our existence and to our survival. And the most evil and heinous of our enemies knew it.

Right after the Holocaust, Rav Yitzchak Herzog was presented by a senior British officer with a most remarkable discovery. The British recovered from Hitler’s bunker two Jewish books and  Rav Herzog received a copy of a Talmudic tractate (Masechet Pesachim) and Chaim Weizmann was given one volume from the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. Two sefarim! Hitler had two Jewish books on the shelf in the library in his bunker, where he killed himself seventy years ago. It is a true story that just sounds fabricated but his grandson (and namesake – Buji Herzog, leader of Israel’s’ Labor Party)  has a picture of his grandfather with that sefer. But why did Hitler retain these two volumes?

Of course no one knows. Perhaps to remind himself every day of his life’s mission – to murder Jews? But then he would have kept sefarim elsewhere also, in his other lairs and retreats and residences. They were only found in the Fuhrerbunker. Perhaps it was something else: Hitler only lived in his bunker during the last three months of the war. Maybe he knew that the Torah was the secret to Jewish survival. Or maybe he saw that the end was near, that the Reich that was suppose to last for 1000 years was collapsing – and he knew he had lost out to the Jews of the Talmud, to those who were faithful to the Rambam – because those Jews are indestructible.

Just as remarkably, barely a block from the site of Hitler’s bunker – now destroyed and remembered only with a sign, a diagram and apartments above it – stands Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, 2711 concrete slabs, looking like tombstones of different sizes, the number, said the artist, chosen at random. What is 2711? The number of pages in the Babylonian Talmud, in the Daf Yomi cycle. It is hard to believe, but it is true. Look it up.

The Torah is our life and the length of our days. It is our lives as individuals, but it is our eternity as a people. For an individual Jew, the study of Torah is the primary vehicle through which we eat the fruits thereof in this world but the principal is still stored for us in the world-to-come.

For the Jewish people as a whole, where there is Torah study, there is life, existence, vitality and vigor. Our enemies know it – but we know it as well. When Shavuot comes, we reinforce to ourselves this basic truth, with love and dedication, with renewed commitment and enthusiasm, not so much to defy our enemies as to reinvigorate ourselves, rejoice with the Giver of the Torah and all who love the Torah, and hasten the era of salvation.

Pesach and Gratitude

In one of the climactic parts of the hagada, we cite the Mishna ( Pesachim 117B): “Therefore  we are obligated to thank and praise G-d for what He did to our fathers and us” – all the wonders and  miracles  that accompanied the Exodus , and we begin  the recitation of Hallel . But then in the blessing that follows, we reverse the order, thanking G-d  who ” redeemed us and our fathers from Egypt. ” Why the change – first,  “our fathers and us” and then “to us and our fathers.”   Why the change?

There is a beautiful story in  the fascinating   hagada of Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon  about Rav Yona Emanuel, late editor of Hamaayan and long-time teacher of Torah in Israel. At his grandson’s brit milah  in 1985, he related a story that he said he had never told anyone before, not even his wife or children.

Forty years earlier , he said, it was Pesach Eve 1945, and  a young Yona Emanuel was imprisoned  in Bergen-Belsen. He had been forced  for a long period of time  to rise early and spend his day at hard labor. He came back exhausted, just like every day, broken already by two years of maltreatment. He was 19 years old. His father was already dead, his older and younger brothers were dead, and his little sister was dead. His mother was barely clinging to life, lying ill in her barracks. In that time, days before liberation, Jews were dying by the hundreds every day of starvation and disease.

That night – Pesach night – he sat at her bedside and recited the hagada. Of course he had no wine  and  no matzot. All  he and everyone around him had  – in abundance – wa s maror. Life itself was bitter.  He whispered the  hagada  to his mother – he didn’t know whether or not she heard it – until he came to th e blessing cited above.  And he said,  “Who redeemed us and redeemed our fathers,” and when he came to these words, the prayer in the blessing,   “just like He redeemed us and our forefathers from Egypt, so too He will bring us to other holidays and festivals that will come upon us in peace, rejoicing in the rebuilding of Your city and joyous in Your service,” he suddenly stopped.

He could not say the words. For the first time, he didn’t believe what he was saying. And he thought to himself: Will any of us live to see “other holidays and festivals?” Will anyone here see the holy city of Yerushalayim? Can anyone even expect to be happy again? He burst out crying, and stopped saying the hagada. Soon after, his mother died.

But now, forty years later, he continued: that night, if only I could have even imagined that I would live to see the land of Israel, together with one sister and two brothers; if only I could have imagined that I would eventually live in a Jewish state, marry and have my own children; if only I could have imagined that forty years later, I would be the sandak at my grandson’s brit in Yerushalayim; if I could have imagined any of that, I would have been able to finish the hagada that night.

Why in the text do we first say “our fathers and then ourselves”   – and then switch the order in the blessing to “Who redeemed us and our fathers ?” When it comes to offering praise to G-d, everything starts wit h the Exodus from Egypt.  Because our fathers were liberated, so in essence  were we. But when it comes to offering thanks to G-d, that has to come from us first – “Who redeemed us and our fathers . ” In every generation, we have to find the opportunities to thank G-d – for our lives and our families, for our bounty and our freedom, for Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, and  for being given the opportunities to live full, productive, peaceful and prosperous lives.

To all but the most pessimistic and dour, we are living in one of the golden ages of Jewish history. We are not without problems – and the world is becoming increasingly more dangerous –  but our problems pale before our advantages, our gifts and our blessings – from  the ingathering of the exiles occurring before our eyes, to  Jewish statehood , to peace and prosperity almost everywhere in the exile , even considering the recent tribulations .

It is that gratitude that should overwhelm us this Pesach, and fill us with a yearning to better ourselves, to enhance our observance of Mitzvot, our service of G-d, and study of Torah.  It should encourage us to say again and again, with feeling and sincerity,   “therefore we are obligated  to thank and praise G-d for all the miracles down to our ancestors and to us; He who took us from slavery to freedom, from agony to joy, from darkness to a great light.” May  He once again – as He did then – take us from servitude to redemption so we may merit in our day the complete fulfillment of the vision of our prophets, speedily and in our days.

A kosher and happy Pesach to all!

 

Winners and Losers

Only in Israel could a party that wins less than a quarter of the popular vote could be construed, as one headline put it, as having “cruised to victory.” But such are the vagaries of the Israeli political system that the Likud won, in the Prime Minister’s own words, a “great victory.” Who are the winners and losers?

The biggest winner was clearly PM Netanyahu, a resounding personal triumph that also served as vindication of himself, his unfairly beleaguered wife, his decision to challenge Barack Obama, speak to Congress and confront the American people with the reality of their President’s feckless foreign policy, and his political skills. It was a classic come-from-behind victory, as the polls showed him lagging behind his Labor rivals until the very end. And he succeeded not by broadening the popularity of the Likud, but by bringing out his base to vote and poaching votes from the parties that are his ideological brothers, such as the HaBayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) and Yisrael Beteinu (”Israel is our Home”). (Even their names sound alike, although their constituencies are very different.)

And Netanyahu succeeded in that by scaring his base and others into believing that a Labor government would endanger the country, a traditional Likud tactic that, despite being two generations old, is not necessarily untrue. When he repeatedly implored voters to “come home,” he did not mean the “homes” that the two parties mentioned above represented but the Likud home. It worked.

Of course, be careful what you wish for. Forming a government might not be as simple as it seems. Netanyahu has natural allies but those natural allies have diverse and sometimes intractable and irreconcilable demands. Each of them is smarting under what are in essence – if we just crunch the numbers and not digest the spin – poor electoral showings. The Likud will be the main party, and deserves at least half the cabinet seats. The other parties will be left scrambling to remain meaningful, find a place at the end of the table, and try to have some influence on policy and statecraft. And they will have some influence but little power, and even that will dissipate if Netanyahu dangles the reed of a national unity government with the Labor Party (a.k.a., the “Zionist Camp) whether now or in the future.

The biggest loser was not Yitzchak (Buji) Herzog. He is young enough to remain a viable candidate for the next decade or so, notwithstanding the ephemeral nature of Israeli politics, and he did succeed in reviving what had been a dormant, declining party. (Fortunately Buji Herzog will most likely not sit in the same cabinet with Boogie Yaalon, or things might get confusing.) The biggest loser was Barack Obama who made enormous efforts to unseat Netanyahu, did what he could to bolster the Herzog campaign, and sent over campaign staffers and money. He failed; his quasi-endorsement of the “Anyone But Bibi” approach worked as well as did his endorsements of Democratic candidates in the November 2014 elections. Call it the “reverse coattail” effect.

There were other winners.

A strong Israel. For the second consecutive election, the “peace process” played almost no role in the voting. No one thinks peace is on the horizon, and few think that even negotiations are imperative. Certainly the Arabs can ratchet up their relevance through terror but it seems as, at least for now, the Israeli public has been sufficiently burned in the last 15 years that it has little interest in or patience for talk of withdrawals, another partition of the land of Israel, and signing ceremonies on the White House lawn.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, and for that possibility Jews must be vigilant. Netanyahu’s tactic in his last term worked quite well, and that too is a traditional Likud ploy: bring in a left-winger as Foreign Minister or negotiator in order to mollify the international community and buy time. Menachem Begin did it with Moshe Dayan, and Netanyahu did it with Tzipi Livni. The alternative – candor – is a rarely used device in diplomacy, and will surely bring on Israel the wrath of the international community, the EU, the American President, leftist American Jews, potential anti-Israel UN resolutions, sanctions, etc. We will get a clue as to which approach Netanyahu will take in whether or not he walks back his rejection of a Palestinian state and who is his choice for Foreign Minister or lead negotiator with the Arabs.

Yesh Atid. How can a party that lost more than a third of its seats and will likely be in opposition be considered a winner? Firstly, because it survived, which is an uncommon fate among these boutique third parties that spring up in every Israeli election, but primarily because it has set itself up as the home of the secular Israeli who wants a decent economy rooted in capitalism, personal freedom and a de-emphasis on the “peace process.” In other words, Yesh Atid – and to some extent, Labor – has just about put Israel’s far left (Meretz) out of business. The party that is most associated with surrender to the Arabs, possesses a blame-Israel first mentality, and is the favorite of the State Department and liberal American Jews, was actually in danger of disappearing entirely from the electoral map and barely qualified for the Knesset. Outside the Israeli media, where it has disproportionate support, Meretz does not resonate with the Israeli public.

Kulanu. This cycle’s boutique third party has just enough seats to be able to determine who will be the next Prime Minister, but is such a hodgepodge of diverse personalities that it is unlikely to survive another election cycle unless it does something dramatically well. Its leader, Moshe Kachlon, was a disgruntled Likudnik, and is poised to become the new Finance Minister. Fine with me (!), but what matters more is which economics he chooses to follow. If he goes the populist route – price controls or ceilings, special favors, handouts, increased welfare, etc. – then he will win temporary support but annul Israel’s remarkable economic gains of the last decade. Does he really buy into the current American bugaboo of “income disparity”? The term itself is a red herring because it is almost impossible to make the poor wealthier unless the wealthy become wealthier as well. Unless…you just confiscate money from the wealthy in the form of higher taxes, which leaves the wealthy with less to invest, fewer jobs for the middle class, but more money for the government to hand out. This is Obama’s income redistribution fantasy and does result in more equality – as in Churchill’s definition of the virtue of socialism: the equal sharing of miseries.

If Kachlon goes the more logical route – e.g., tax incentives to builders to construct affordable housing, waiving the VAT for first-time home buyers – then he will have done as great a service to the public  as he did in lowering the price of telecom services when he last served in government, and he will have a brighter political future.

And there were clear losers. The other losers were the small parties now gasping for relevance, the fate of all parties with mandates in the single digits. All spin aside, the “Jewish Home” took quite a hit. Perhaps it was inevitable that its voters would be cannibalized by the Likud, but that is politics. The skilled campaigners are able to attract voters from beyond their parties’ base, especially if their message is broad and appealing enough. Naphtali Bennett is a skilled campaigner and he will be around in Israeli politics for decades to come, and for good reason. But his campaign became too distracted – why, in a moment – and the persistent accusation that he had turned the “Jewish Home” into Likud B eventually took root: many of his voters voted for Likud A. That can and should change.

What went wrong is correctible. In theory, Bennett’s desire to head a national, rather than a sectoral, party is both sound politics and good ideology. The Torah should not be the possession of a small group of Jews but of every Jew, and no one is better equipped than the party of Religious Zionists to oversee the implementation of Torah ideals in a modern state. In practice, though, Israel remains a very parochial society. All of Bennett’s efforts to lure Tel Avivians for vote for him failed. The gimmick of placing (and then recalling) a secular soccer celebrity on the Knesset list to win secular votes also failed, and admittedly so. The mistake was a traditional one in politics: the winner must always first secure his base and only then expand it into other segments of the population. That was not done here, and so many natural Bennett voters assumed that their major interests could be safeguarded by Likud.

In principle, Bennett’s yearning for a large mixed party makes sense, and perhaps will eventually resonate with the public. But the current state of the Israeli body politic deems it premature.  Rather than competing for the Defense or Foreign Ministries (Bennett would be fantastic as Foreign Minister), HaBayit Hayehudi will be fortunate to retain the Religious Affairs Ministry and have Bennett perhaps stay on as Minister of Economic Affairs. If Netanyahu is as grateful as he should be, he will award the “Jewish Home” a third ministry as well.

Going forward the better approach for the Jewish Home will be to demonstrate how the wisdom and beauty of Torah betters all members of the society – spiritually, morally, personally and economically – and then people will naturally gravitate towards it as the home of Jewish values, rather than just a “home.”

The bigger problem for Habayit Hayehudi, that again cost them and other parties votes, was the terrible disunity in the religious voting public. The Yachad (“Together”) party of Eli Yishai simply need not have existed (don’t you love how groups that are founded on discord choose for themselves names that reflect harmony?). It was a vanity party of disparate individuals joined together because they were dismissed from other parties. It won enough votes to deprive the Religious Zionists and right-wing parties of several Knesset seats – but not enough to make it into the Knesset. A terrible shame, if not a disgrace.

That friction had other untoward consequences. Other parties would serve the nation well by disappearing. Shas exists as a vanity party that only sows discord and racial friction, not to mention the ethical struggles of its leader. It is proudly parochial in the worst sense of the word – provincial and narrow-minded. The originally Russian-flavored Yisrael Beteinu lost much support and really should no longer exist. It would make sense for Avigdor Lieberman to fold his party into Likud once and for all.

And the ironically-named United Torah Judaism took no position (!) on security or diplomatic issues and only wanted money and special treatment for its constituents. What is astonishing is that it remains with the same number of Knesset seats after almost 40 years, despite the much-ballyhooed increase in its numbers. Either Charedim do not vote as they are told, vote for other parties, or just do not vote. The latter seems to have been a factor here, as the disarray in today’s Charedi world between factions in Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim prompted the rabbinical leader of the Yerushalayim to advise his followers to sit out the election. So much for Daas Torah… Instead of potentially making a difference, they did nothing, except make a powerful statement about something, precisely what remains a mystery.

What is the benefit of unity? The United Arab List won 13-14 seats and is now Israel’s third largest party, a tribute to Israeli democracy although not such a blessing for Israel’s existence. Their dissimilar elements joined forces in a way that the religious or right-wing parties did not. There is an obvious lesson in that. Here is one consequence: the number of Shomrei Mitzvot (said another way, MKs who define themselves as “Orthodox Jews”) in the new Knesset fell to 28 from a high of 39 in the last Knesset. It just became harder to get a minyan for Mincha in the Knesset…

Some present Knesset members did not win re-election and will be missed. “Jewish Home” MKs Orit Strook, Avi Wortzman, and Shuli Mualem were credits to their party, the Knesset and the nation, and Yesh Atid’s MK Dov Lipman was courageous, thoughtful and resolute, a Kiddush Hashem in ways known and unknown. All should be blessed with continued opportunities to serve the Jewish people.

The election coverage again highlighted the different perspectives from the US and in Israel. In the US, much was made of Netanyahu’s retraction of his support for a “Palestinian” state, something which had little leverage in Israel, and the Netanyahu-Obama confrontation played almost no role in Israel either. In the end, people voted for a better country, a safer country, a more prosperous country, and a more Jewish country.

All in all, it sounds very reasonable. Let’s pray that it stays so.

Modern Exodus

The Midrash (Tanchuma Beshalach 10) relates that when the Jewish people left Egypt and miraculously crossed the Red Sea,  the water was divided into twelve different paths, twelve bridges, one for each tribe. But why couldn’t we all cross on one bridge – why did each tribe need its own bridge?

I think the answer is that in redemption, as in life, one size does not fit all. Even in leaving a bitter exile, we did not all leave the same way (and we don’t all leave the same way), nor do we leave at the same time with the same motivation. Some bridges are smooth, others filled with potholes. Some have tolls – quite exorbitant tolls, which extract a very high price from us – and some are free, and include beautiful vistas. Some are heavily trafficked, and others are smooth sailing. But each tribe found its own way to cross.

Recently, I read a fascinating history of the Soviet Jewry movement that I recommend, published in 2011 by Gal Beckerman and entitled “When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone” (from the Safam song of the late 1970’s). It depicts what is nothing less than a remarkable and miraculous chapter in Jewish history that today we take for granted. I knew some of the broad strokes and details, but much of it I did not know. It behooves us to learn it, to know about and to draw conclusions from it. Because we lived through it, as our Sages state (Nida 31a), we have trouble seeing the miracles that took place right before our eyes. What miracles?

It was a miracle that a semblance of Jewish identity remained after so many decades of Communist suppression of Torah, and paradoxically it endured because the Soviets were so obsessed with controlling the lives of their citizens that the government recorded their Jewish nationality on their internal passports. But for that, Jews could have completely assimilated. In essence, they were made to feel like they were Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians, etc. – but not completely. Still outsiders. Even intermarriage didn’t help the Soviet Jew conceal his Jewish roots.

It was a miracle that Jewish groups were able to accomplish anything, with all the infighting that took place. As in most successful enterprises, a few passionate people led the way often against strong opposition until too many establishment Jews thought to make amends for what was largely American Jewish inaction during the Holocaust. Israel had an intelligence unit already in the 1950’s designed to encourage aliya with agents in America, and it also met resistance from American Jews who had a much more modest, even timid, profile back then. There was a long-running dispute between political refuseniks (who pressed the issue of human rights, freedom for all, etc.) and the cultural refuseniks, who wanted to deepen their connection to Judaism, Torah and Israel. They didn’t always work together, and the Soviets treated them differently as well.

There was a long-running dispute between those who favored quiet diplomacy and those who supported active, and occasionally violent, protests; those who supported Scoop Jackson – one of the righteous Gentiles of the last half-century – and his linkage of human rights and freedom of emigration to trade benefits for the Soviets, and those who were vehemently opposed to linkage (think Kissinger, et al); those who wanted to coddle the various presidents and those who wanted to challenge them. (As nothing ever changes in history except the names and the dates, the exact same debate is taking place today over the United States’ dealings with Iran, the threat of renewed sanctions, and the call in Congress for legislation that would immediately implement sanctions when the talks break down in June. And – again, echoes of the past – between those who want to indulge the President thinking that access and photo ops equate to power and influence and those who want to challenge and publicly defy him.)

We should never underestimate what President Reagan did to liberate Soviet Jews, along with George Schultz and even then-Vice President George Bush. The Reagan administration was the first to raise Jewish rights at every meeting in every forum with the Soviets, alternately surprising, antagonizing and even insulting a parade of Soviet dictators. It was Gorbachev who, initially opposed to Jewish rights and emigration as were his predecessors, realized soon after taking power that the jig was up. Kremlin archives now reveal minutes of the Politburo meetings when he informed his cohorts that their nation could not sustain itself without Western assistance, and that assistance would not be forthcoming without human rights and freedom for Jews. (Brezhnev and others had stated among themselves in the 1970’s that the Soviet empire would not survive an open emigration policy. They were right.)

And Reagan was astute enough and humble enough to tell Gorbachev that he can do it at his own pace and announce it for his own reasons – as long as he does it – and that Reagan would not claim credit for it, and would not gloat or embarrass Gorbachev. And that is what happened.

The Soviet dictators present as something out of ancient history even though it was just a few decades ago – the evil, the capriciousness, the insecurity they bred throughout the public. They were true believers, at first incredulous that anyone would want to leave their Communist paradise, and then offended beyond reason when so many did. The numbers fluctuated – from tens of thousands of emigrants in some years to hundreds in others. (That was based largely on politics, trade, pressure, and other events on the world scene.)

Above all, the mesirat nefesh (the self-sacrifice) of the Jews is exhilarating to re-visit. The Holocaust loomed over everything. Even so, people with little connection to Jewish life knew that once they applied for emigration, their lives would never again be the same – loss of job, sometimes residence, sometimes imprisonment, family disruption, divorce, alienation from children, internal exile, Siberia, labor camp, eavesdropping, KGB harassment, etc. And yet they did it, by the tens of thousands, and later by the hundreds of thousands.

And the Jews did not know from one day to the next year what would happen to them – why some people were released quickly and others not for many years. There was no rhyme or reason to the decisions, part of the mind control fostered by the dictatorship. Even Natan Sharansky, before he was released, was moved from his labor camp to Moscow for two weeks, and not told anything about what is happening to him until the night before he was flown out of the Soviet Union when he had to sign documents renouncing his Soviet citizenship. People lived in the dark, and in constant fear.

The courage and dedication were inspiring – and legendary. Sylva Zalmanson telling her sentencing judge that she will live in Israel someday, regardless of her sentence, and saying in Hebrew – while being reprimanded by the judge for speaking a foreign language – “If I forget Jerusalem, may my right hand wither…” Unforgettable.

The road out of exile has twelve bridges, but always requires self-sacrifice like that of Nachshon who jumped first into the water – before the Red Sea had split. Someone had to start and great things then happen. Ironically, the greatest despair among the refuseniks occurred in 1985 – right before Gorbachev changed his mind. They felt there was no hope, no future, all avenues blocked, and no options left. And then, G-d’s salvation came in the blink of an eye – “the heart of the king is in G-d’s hand” (Mishlei 21:1).

When we think of miracles and astonishing events in Jewish history – we need not go back 3700 years; 37 years also works. When the history of the ingathering of the exiles as was prophesied in the Torah is written, we can say we lived through it. We saw it up close, even if we didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. The exodus of Soviet Jews was unlikely at the time – and impossible to fathom in retrospect. It is no exaggeration to say that the Soviet Jewry movement brought down a mighty empire. It also brought American Jewry out of its shell, partly atoning for its silence during the Holocaust.

As in the original exodus, it was only at the end of the process of redemption that the people acknowledged G-d’s great hand. And we do today as well, even in this transition stage from exile to redemption. When we want to teach our children of heroes and heroines, of self-sacrifice, we need not go back millennia and centuries – decades will suffice. It is good for them to know that Jews – our contemporaries, people who still walk among us – sacrificed for Torah, for the Jewish people and for the land of Israel. And they inspire Jews even today.

The Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystery of the Shofar

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

And Ktiva vachatima tova to all!    – RSP)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shana Tova to all!

 

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.