Category Archives: Jewish History

The Denial

President Obama’s insistence that he is not an “anti-Semite” may not be remembered as vividly as President Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” if only because Nixon said his just once while Obama has had to invoke this defense repeatedly in recent weeks, and to an increasingly skeptical audience. Sometimes, indeed, the Prez doth protest too much, methinks. He did state that there is “not even a smidgen of evidence for it,” but then again he once said there is “not even a smidgen of corruption” at the IRS (February 1, 2014). There must be a smidgen of something somewhere.  In any event, Jew hatred is a matter of the heart, and unknowable save through words and actions. Some of the words and most of the actions of this President do not bolster his reputation as a friend of the Jews.

Personally, I would not level such a crude accusation against the President.  I can’t see into a person’s heart, but I am inclined to quote a currently- beleaguered presidential hopeful on a matter of even greater importance: “What difference does it make?” The fact is that there were two recent presidents, Truman and Nixon, who privately expressed much ill will towards Jews, but at critical moments, each made historic decisions (Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948 and Nixon’s airlift of weapons to Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973) in the face of intense pressure to do neither. So who really cares?  By the way, who exactly called him an “anti-Semite”? I haven’t seen that anywhere, from any Jew in any official or influential capacity. It makes his feigned, pained reaction seem more like an attempt to change the subject than genuine disappointment. Whether Obama is an enemy of the Jews or a friend of the Jews matters less than what he does to the Jews – and to the United States.

We can take him at his word, and still note that Obama has historically been intimate with a number of overt Jew haters – friends, supporters and pastors – and those Jews that he has known tend to be, if not always anti-Israel, then at least unsympathetic to Israel and halfhearted in their Jewish commitment. For sure, there have been many outright Jew haters who kept faithful Jews in their employ, from Nebuchadnezzar who had Daniel on his payroll to Ferdinand and Isabella whose finances were managed by Don Yitzchak Abravanel. And there must have been Jews then who looked at the Jewish ministers who served all those monarchs and determined that they can’t be all bad, because, after all, Jews work for them.

Of course, the President’s offense at being called by some unknown person an “anti-Semite” (“it hurts”) is just a tad treacly, especially given his interest in allowing Iran, a nation that has consistently called for the annihilation of the Jewish state, to develop nuclear weapons and the capacity to use them against Israel. (Of course, “not on his watch.”) That is certainly not the act of a Semite-phile, unless the Semites in question are Arabs, but even they are opposed to the Bad Deal. That searing emotional trauma – of having his love for the Jewish people questioned – might also be doubted by those who perceive Obama’s desire to subsidize Iran’s support of terror to the tune of $150B to be indicative of an uncaring attitude to the fate of Jews in Israel and around the world who have been the targets and victims of Iranian terror for decades, among others. Somehow, having a White House seder before Pesach and a White House Chanukah party before Chanukah are not as meaningful criteria by which to assess a person’s friendship for the Jewish people.

His protestations are also less than credible, if only because Obama habitually iterates clichés that are either demonstrably false or convincingly incredible. For example, just several days ago, he told a group of mostly gullible Jews that if Iran breaches the agreement, sanctions will “snap back” into place. That, of course, is not possible, as existing contracts would be honored, those existing contracts could sustain the Iranian economy for a decade or two, and the “international community,” which Obama purports to “lead from behind” would not go along in any case. Sanctions removed will not return, even after – especially after – Iran gets its nuclear weapon.

He also told those credulous communal leaders that “the military option is still on the table.” That is true. Unfortunately, that “table” is located in a sealed room in a locked house on a remote part of an inaccessible island, but it is on the table. The future president will not have the same military options that Obama has because Iran will be even closer to completing its nuclear program, with perhaps even more unknown sites, and with an even greater chance of the reactors all being “hot” – radioactive – with even deadlier fallout from an attack. Contrary to what Obama says, a future president will have fewer military options. But it is good to know that they will still be on the table.

Clearly, Obama never intended a military strike against Iran and did what he could to thwart Israel’s planned attack. Once Iran became aware of that hesitancy, it gained the upper hand in the negotiations and parlayed that into a stunning diplomatic success, and a humbling diplomatic defeat for the United States. Besides, Obama’s love of diplomacy and distaste for raw power (except against US allies) engenders the absurdity that negotiations are always preferable to military action up to and until the time Iran develops its weapon. Of course, once it develops its weapon it is too late to use military force because the potential Iranian retaliation serves as a deterrent. But it is comforting to know that the military option is on some table, somewhere.

It is worth recalling that during the Senate confirmation hearings of the hapless Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense (true to predictions, he had a brief and undistinguished record after he was confirmed), Hagel blurted out that US policy towards Iran was one of “containment,” i.e., to allow them a weapon and then ensure that Iran be deterred from using it much like the Soviet Union was “contained.” This was said to the horror of the sitting Senators and the consternation of his handlers, who quickly handed him a note of correction that he dutifully read into the record that America’s policy was not containment but the preclusion of the Iranian bomb.

Well, it is clear that Hagel gaffed by telling the truth. By all indications – except for the empty words that emanate from the White House – US policy is containment of the Iranian bomb as nothing will be done to prevent its development if the Bad Deal passes. Then – by which time Obama will be in retirement – the US will learn that the Soviet Union, Evil Empire though it was, was a rational actor with whom nuclear stalemate was possible, while Iran is an irrational, apocalyptic actor bent on fulfilling its demented religious vision of the future.

There is not a credible military option on any table in North America, sanctions are not snapping back, the inspections regime is a farce, the Iranian windfall will lead to an increase in global terror, and the embargo on conventional weapons will soon be lifted as well. Iran is the only country in the world that has an intermediate range ballistic missile capability (2000 miles) without having a nuclear weapon, and they are developing an intercontinental range ballistic missile (more than 3000 miles). What are both for, if not the obvious?

All threaten the peace and security of Israel – and America. Assuming that Obama is not an “anti-Semite,” one would be hard-pressed to perceive what policies a real “anti-Semite” would pursue that are different than the ones Obama is pursuing. And that matters more than his anguish about being called an “anti-Semite” or whether or not he really is one.

As bad as the Bad Deal is, Obama’s search-and-destroy mission against all opponents of the Bad Deal, especially Israel and the Jews, is just a sign of bad faith and maybe worse. Indeed, Obama has stated that only Israel opposes the deal and he has singled out Jewish groups – and their money – for opposing him. Note that well: notwithstanding that polls show most Americans opposed to the Bad Deal (and Jews are far less than 2% of the population) and notwithstanding that hundreds of military people and the bulk of the Republican Party are vehemently opposed, Obama chose to underscore Jewish opposition – and their money. Even liberal Jewish groups, some, of course, quite tentatively, exposed these code words for what they are: an attempt to make this a Jewish issue and stoke the flames of Jew hatred, of choosing between the President and the Prime Minister, between loyalty and dual loyalty, between patriotism and treachery, between peace and warmongering.

To date, few Democrats in Congress have had the courage to defy Obama. All have been subject to pressure and some to threats. It is simply implausible that Democrats would support this deal when so many have said for two years that they would not support a deal that acquiesced in an Iranian weapon, that did not include rigorous inspections of all facilities, in which the Iranians did not have to account for their past nuclear development or halt their support of global terror, or have the sanctions regime end not immediately but gradually. This Bad Deal does none of that, and will go down in American history as one of the sorriest examples of politicians placing party over country. There is no other way to say it but that Democrats are arming with weapons of mass destruction a nation that chants “Death to America” and has been at war with the United States since 1979. Those are the leaders of a nation with a death wish.

The Deal is Bad, the optics are bad and the words are worse. No wonder Obama has to deny constantly that he is an “anti-Semite.” Real anti-Semites have always accused the Jews of being a fifth column, of dual loyalties, of egging the world into wars, of using their money and power to manipulate politicians to do their bidding.

It is quite irrelevant whether Obama is or isn’t an “anti-Semite” but he is forced to deny that slur because he fears the severance of the umbilical cord that connects most Jews to the Democratic Party. Jews are a reliable voting bloc for Democrats, and more importantly, Jewish money, sad to say, plays an enormous role in funding the Democrat agenda. Frankly, I believe Obama’s fear is misplaced and most Jews’ ties to the Democrat Party are far stronger than their ties to Judaism or to Israel. He need not fear Jewish abandonment of the Democrats – but what those Jews need is rhetorical cover, an explicit denial of “anti-Semitism” and equally public statements of love and friendship for Israel.

For those Jews for whom liberalism is their true religion, these affirmations allow them to sleep easily at night and write checks to the Democrats by day. They too will bear part of the blame if the Bad Deal passes and they will share much of the blame when Iran gets its bomb. They will have regrets, but they will assuage their grief at community rallies and prayer vigils, and then support the next Democrat who tells them what they want to hear.

As long as the Democrat insists – swears! – that he is not an “anti-Semite” and is hurt to the core by the very accusation. And if the Democrat can shed tears while saying it, that is a bonus.

Obama’s denials of this unsourced accusation is just damage control, an attempt to mend fences with one of his parties’ main sources of support especially now that he knows that his Bad Deal is likely to pass. Will the Jews ignore this hostile act? My guess is that Iran will not necessarily get their bomb even with the deal – other events can intervene – but Obama will get his Jews back.

The Community

“Hillel said: do not separate from the community” (Avot 2:4).

So where is the American Jewish community on the matter of the Iran nuclear deal? In truth, better than expected, notwithstanding the noisy pockets of resistance to the eminently moral and logical opposition to US acquiescence in the creation of an Iranian nuclear threshold state. The matter can be boiled down to its simplest elements: why would the US concede – even a decade hence – the creation of an Iranian nuclear bomb, provide $150B in unfrozen assets to allow Iran to increase its support of terror around the world, agree to allow unlimited acquisition of conventional weapons, essentially rely on Iran to guarantee its compliance with the present limitations and commit to defending Iran’s nuclear program from acts of sabotage – all for a nation whose leaders routinely join public parades in which they and the masses shout “Death to America?”

Furnishing your enemies with deadly weapons in the hope that such will moderate their behavior has been tried – here in Israel – and without success. Pursuant to the Oslo Accords, Israel gave guns and rifles to the PLO – which they promptly used to murder Israelis. That was a crazy idea then; to assist your enemy in building nuclear bombs is infinitely crazier.

So where are the Jews?

The other day, I gave a talk to a group of Israelis, one of whom asked about a pending “civil war” between Jews in America over the Iran deal, about which he had read. I said, with some sadness, that there cannot be a civil war among American Jewry because war requires a battlefield, and there is not sufficient interaction between the right and the left (loosely defined) or between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox to provoke even a skirmish, much less a war.

The dark secret is that there really isn’t an American Jewish “community” as such. It is too fragmented to be a community, and if one expected that a crisis would bring everyone together, well, either a pending Iranian bomb is not a “crisis” or the proposition is untrue.

It’s untrue, and the fragmentation has worsened over the last few decades, as the rate of assimilation and disconnect from a substantive Jewish identity have escalated. For too many Jews, Jewishness is an aspect of their identity, and often one that is entirely ethnic and not at all national or religious. Add to that the skyrocketing intermarriage rate and the offspring of those marriages who have but a tenuous connection to Jewish life and we have a full-fledged crisis that will not be ameliorated even by padding the statistics of the Jewish population of the United States by counting halachic non-Jews or even anyone who claims a Jewish identity.

In principle I have never objected to those who voice disagreement with the policies of the Israeli government when warranted. I have done it myself, of course, but at least my views were always reflecting the views of a sizable segment of Israeli society and usually that of a political party. But today Israelis from right to left, the government and most of the Jewish opposition, decisively oppose the Iran deal as bad for Israel, for the United States and the free world. For American Jews to stand against that type of support is not only anti-Israel but an act of alienation from the fate of the Jewish people. In it, they cast their lot with Israel’s enemies and publicly proclaim that their primary allegiance is to Barack Obama and the far-left wing of the Democratic Party.

Placed in that context, a letter of support for the Iran deal signed by more than 300 “rabbis” is more easily digestible. Their estrangement from the Jewish people and the Torah happened long ago. Almost all the “rabbis” are not Torah observant; apparently only one Orthodox Rabbi – a known leftist and maverick – signed on. Of all the “rabbis” on the list, I would shocked if even one had a weekday Mincha/Maariv in the temple. How many wear tefillin (men, of course)? How many keep Shabbat? How many study the Talmud – not extract stories and parables for sermons, but actually study the Talmud and Codes? These are professional Jewish leftists whose primary religion is leftism, not Judaism.

A letter opposing the Iran deal has already attracted almost 400 rabbis’ signatures, and will be released shortly. But what matters more than the numbers is the message: having abandoned Torah and Mitzvot, the leftist “rabbis” have also abandoned any semblance of Jewish solidarity.

That is why it is cause for hope that several major Jewish organizations of liberal affiliation have publicly expressed their opposition to Obama’s Bad Deal. The Reform movement, caught betwixt and between, officially, publicly and thoughtfully took…no position, seeing the good (?) and the bad. Sadly, they are just immobilized by their liberal ideology. The conflict of identity must be painful. Their reticence is no great surprise, as is their irrelevance to Jewish destiny. On the matter of whether or not to allow nuclear weaponry to a genocidal enemy of the Jewish people, the Reform movement, like their hero in the White House during his legislative days, voted “present.”

But the organizational opponents, as well as senators like Chuck Schumer, deserve credit even though their rejection of the Bad Deal should be obvious. It is obvious, but that doesn’t make their breaking ranks with Obama and company any easier for them. It’s easy for me. But their world views and Obama’s are so synchronized that their rebuff to Obama, who, typically, is handling it with his usual gracelessness, pettiness, and vindictiveness, speaks well of the spark of Jewishness that remains and still animates them. Even combining their rejection of the deal with fulsome praise of Obama doesn’t make it less courageous – and even if, as some have suggested, Schumer wouldn’t have opposed it if he really thought it would not pass does not detract from his willingness to defy the White House. If Schumer would now actively whip votes against it like he regularly did for other of Obama’s harmful legislation, Schumer might even achieve “statesman” status. Hope springs eternal.

Obviously, the Obama-compliant media loves to trumpet the Jews who are supportive of the Bad Deal, being insensate to the realities of American Jewish communal life and the fragile Jewish identity of most American Jews. But they are the exceptions, unsurprising exceptions at that, with very little influence in Jewish life.

As Rabbenu Yonah comments (ibid): “When the community joins to do a mitzvah, it is a crown to the Life-giver of the universe and brings glory to His entire kingdom.” This is the mitzvah of the moment. Now is the time to take sides, and to stand up for the Jewish people, America, and lovers of freedom and combat the forces of evil, tyranny and appeasement. For many Jews, their response will be their defining act of Jewish identity, perhaps in their lives. History will judge harshly those who side with murderous tyrants against the purveyors of good, and no cover will be provided by noting the “reservations” to the Bad Deal that some supporters have.

Win or lose, nothing will be over, and the struggle will continue. May it continue with a strong, united and proud Jewish community.

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.