Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

The Interview

RSP – It has been almost a year since the release of my latest book, “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.” Recently, Dr. Alan Brill interviewed me about two of my books and general thoughts on Torah and life as they emerge from my writings. The interview in large part is reprinted below, and can also be accessed here.

Alan Brill: Recently, I interviewed Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn about his new book. In that book, the only rabbi mentioned by Einhorn as his personal friend was Rabbi Steven Pruzansky. That, in turn, lead to this interview giving the world further insight into the Right Wing side of Modern Orthodoxy.

When asked about his Orthodox affiliation, Rabbi Pruzansky replied:

Labels are hard for me. The two primary rabbinic influences in my life – Rabbi  Chait and Rabbi Wein– defy easy labeling. I choose to fly solo, taking the best from a variety of different movements and when necessary distancing myself from those movements on certain issues. I’m happy to be RWMO, but that doesn’t fully categorize me either. I’m a voice in the RCA but not that influential… Most of the organizational and rabbinical politics accomplish nothing and, frankly, bore me…  I prefer to see myself as a “country preacher.”

Pruzansky’s down home preaching has made him both a role model for some and a problematic lighting rod of controversy to others. One of my former students, who currently serves as rabbi in a major Modern Orthodox pulpit, has a congregant who forever urges him to be more like Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, urging him to use Pruzansky as a role model. On the other hand, some consider Rabbi Pruzansky as a Jewish Jeremiah Wright (G-d forbid!- RSP) tainting all those who applaud his sermons.

My interview with Pruzansky, however, is not on his politics, his controversies, his view of President Obama, or his views of Open Orthodoxy. Rather, I turned to his books in order to understand his basic religious message.  He is the most articulate of the local Orthodox rabbis, and he has written three books:   A Prophet for Today: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Yehoshua (2006),Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Shoftim (2009) and his latest, Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility (2014).

The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility (2014) is a clearly written and direct work reflecting his sermons and preaching. The message is that we have to make proper decisions in our careers, marriages, child rearing, and financial dealings.  We have to take responsibility of our lives with its necessary challenges of career, marriage, and child rearing.  The book is a musar book emphasizing self-sufficiency, right choices, and a (very) strong Protestant work ethic. Even quotes from popular works like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers belie a concern for the formula for success.

The work is a model of the implicit Centrist Orthodox critique of the Haredi life. One should plan for a career, not get married until one support a family, don’t let rabbis make your decisions, no learning while supported by others, and not to expect miracles in life or politics.

The country preacher’s thoughts on the book of Genesis show the importance of free enterprise, the necessity of the small state rejecting the state giving free handouts which make us into slaves, the importance of being anti-union, the fundamental importance of being pro-private property, and the necessity of gun ownership. The book is solid musar for Republican values – with some nativism and tea party ideas included.  The book surprised me in how much it was built on yeshivish musar works and not YU related works. But unlike those musar works, here we have a proud use of personal responsibility  for one’s worldly life.

Arguments on the topic of personal responsibility have been hot one in recent years. For example, there have been numerous shows on FoxNews by Bill O’Reiley among others on the topic of personal responsibility (herehere andhere),; Nicholas Kristof penned a response, Now, there is a recently released study by the political scientists Mark D. Brewer and Jeffrey M. Stonecash,Polarization and the Politics of Personal Responsibility (2015), which argues that the idea of personal responsibility is the fundamental divide in the US today between liberal and conservative and the notion of personal responsibility can be used to sort out the current divisions surrounding race, gender and religion.

The book is gold mine for an anthropological study of upper middle class Centrist Orthodoxy. If we want to compare Pruzansky’s message to an opposite work, I would recommend the works of Rabbi Avraham Twerski’s musar. Twerski also deals with the contemporary anxiety of making money and the struggles of family life, but Twerski does not stress responsibility, rather he stresses the importance of turning to God, seeking comfort in prayer, coping with stress, maintaining one’s self esteem by being part of community, and assuring his readers that God will extend his mercy to the unemployed like he helped the Jews in Egypt. A message like Twerski’s creates a very different religious anthropology than that created by Pruzansky’s message.

Pruzansky’s book can also be compared to the 16th century Polish Rabbinic homilies- by the Kli Yakar, Levush, Maharashal Maharal and others– on wealth, family, and responsibility as discussed in the still untranslated work by Haim H. Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-Hanhagah (Jerusalem, 1959). Unlike the poverty of Rabbinic Jews in the 19th and early 20 th century, the upper middle class concern with making wealth of the 16th century  Polish city Jews deserves comparison to our own age.

The other volume discussed in this interview  Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Shoftim (2009) uses the book of Judges to understand contemporary Israel politics. Modern Israeli politicians are compared to the flawed ancient Judges, ethics are learned from the prophet driven battles, and the need to utterly destroy one’s enemy is learned from the battle against the Canaanites.  The volume makes use of many of the recent Israeli Religious Zionist commentaries produced in Hardal yeshivot on the book of Judges that seek to draw modern political messages from the early prophetic books.

I thank Rabbi Pruzansky. Read the interview, learn about this country preacher, one of the leaders of Right Wing Modern Orthodoxy.

The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.

1) What is your message of personal responsibility?

First and foremost, it means the assumption of personal decision-making about one’s life choices. Major issues in life must be decided by the individual and cannot be outsourced to others. Only in that way can the individual’s unique personality be expressed and realized. Add to that the importance of accepting responsibility for failures or mistakes, which builds character and deepens integrity, and provides a platform for learning from one’s experiences.

2) What is the need for self-sufficiency?

Ultimate decisions on choices of spouse, career, place of residence, etc. must be made by the individual (even after he or she consults and receives guidance from others); otherwise, the person is living someone else’s life.

No person, however, is ever completely self-sufficient. We rely on family, friends and community to provide us with the framework and infrastructure in which we can grow, live and thrive. But we should strive for self-sufficiency in terms of decision-making.

For some, the advantage to having another person make critical life decisions for a questioner is that it frees the questioner from having to take any responsibility for his decisions. For others, that might relieve them of the insecurity engendered by those very decisions. For most, I would think, it deprives them of the capacity to develop and enrich their personalities and to live as free people.

I note in Parshat Lech Lecha: “Individuality is not only a blessing but a fulfillment of God’s will in creation. We are allowed – even encouraged – to pursue our individual talents and destinies, all within a Torah framework. We may become Jewish doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians, inventors, scientists, businessmen, entrepreneurs and thinkers. To live in a box stifles creativity, and the attempt to produce cookie-cutter children grows stale…”

3) What is the esteem gained by being part of the Jewish people?

To be a member of the Jewish people is a privilege and a gift. In essence, it is to be entrusted with carrying G-d’s moral message to the rest of the world. One naturally should feel pride in the assignment, but that pride should not feed one’s ego. Rather it should be used as motivation to fulfill the mission that G-d granted us. Indeed, it should induce humility – the humility of the servant executing his tasks on behalf of the king and knowing that the sense of nobility he feels is not innate in him but a reflection of his role as servant.

4) Should people go to rabbis to make decisions for them?

A person should always consult others before making a major decision about which he is conflicted, just to hear other ideas and perspectives. But for a person to allow another person to make a major decision for him is abdicating one’s own humanity and living someone else’s life. That is essentially slavery (avdut), and the antithesis of the image of G-d (tzelem elokim) and right of free choice we were given. Rabbis can have greater insight at times, but I don’t subscribe to the notion that rabbis necessarily have divine inspiration and an unerring perspective on world affairs.

Rav S. R. Hirsch spoke of the tzelem elokim as man’s capacity to be a free-willed being. A failure to exercise that capacity is essentially dehumanizing. Of course, it has to be exercised with care. Man not only possesses a nefesh hasichli – spiritual and intellectual inclinations – but a nefesh habehami – animalistic tendencies – as well. One must be careful to use his gift of the image of G-d (tzelem elokim) to promote the former and harness the latter.

5) You define the goodness in matriarch Sarah’s life as successful. How is the Torah’s goal success? 
   Faithfulness to Torah certainly does not guarantee wealth, but why would we define “success” by the size of one’s bank account? Sadly, too many people are afflicted with that mentality. Chazal spoke of the virtues acquired through poverty, although they didn’t of course recommend it. The poor and the rich are both in challenging situations, and that is the basic test of man: to be able to serve G-d under all circumstances, and we are all therefore placed in different circumstances. But faithfulness to Torah produces success as we should define it – being a proper servant of G-d, at peace with G-d and man, blessed with family, and an absence of any sense of deprivation. etc.

6) When is it OK to blame the victim – such as Dinah- for not showing personal responsibility?
   We don’t blame the victim enough in our society. Usually the victim plays some role in his victimization – usually but of course not always. It is the concept in torts of contributory negligence, which is perfectly logical but rejected by most people when it comes to their personal lives. Distinctions are necessary – of course, im ain deah, havdala minayin? (without knowledge, how can we make distinctions?) – and not all cases are identical. Even in torts, contributory negligence is adjudicated by percentages, 1% to 99%, and everything in between.

That being said, no person has the right to harm, molest, assault or otherwise take advantage of any person, even if the victim is responsible for his bad choices. The onus of guilt remains on the perpetrator. Thus, contributory negligence is a matter of civil, not criminal, law. A criminal cannot excuse his crime by saying the victim should have known better than to walk in a dangerous neighborhood. Chazal were clear that Dina went out looking for trouble and found it – but that is a moral lapse. It did not give anyone the right to attack her.

7) How does revelation on Sinai connect to the value of responsibility?

If man was created as a free-willed being capable of being held accountable for his actions, part of Creation has to entail the revelation by G-d of His will and morality to mankind.

That is how the Jewish people enter world history, never to leave it. We were liberated from Egypt in order to be free-willed beings who can receive His Torah, serve G-d and transmit His morality to others. The Torah is misplaced if it is given to human beings who are not responsible for their actions. We have to use our minds to understand G-d’s will as best we can and control our bodies – rein in our impulses – to serve him as well.

8) Why and how do people need limits on their lives?

It’s this week’s sedra – כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֪ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו. (“Man’s inclinations are towards evil – i.e., instinctual gratification – from his earliest youth.”) Man’s animalistic tendencies will emerge unless they are constrained and redirected elsewhere. Man left unchecked – by Torah, law, conscience, society, etc. – will naturally try to consume, abuse and torment others. Man left unchecked lives a pure animalistic – animal soul nefesh habehami existence, seeking only to gratify his physical needs as best and as frequently as he can. That is why we were given the Torah and the nations limited by the Noahide laws.

9) What do you say to someone poor and born into a cycle of poverty with lack of models for responsibility? 
Personal responsibility includes responsibility for others, especially the needy or downtrodden. Far better than the handout is the personal involvement in their lives – mentoring, guiding and, when necessary, easing them through and out of financial hardship. But we do not believe that circumstances define a person. Hillel “obligated the poor” (mechayev aniyim) to achieve and lift himself up as he did, (Yoma 35b). If it is done by one, it means it can be done by all.

Nonetheless, growing up in hardship – whether the inner city or the Pale of Settlement – makes it more difficult, and that’s where character and values are indispensable. What ails society today is not the dearth of money but the dearth of values. So many people have money and still have corrupt values.

10) The approach in the book has little on mizvot, ritual or Torah, almost everything on marriage, finances, child-rearing, career, and stress of life. What does this say about the community and its issues? What does it say about your approach to the rabbinate?

Nothing! We are defined as a people of mitzvot but that was not my intention in writing. There are many books that deal with the technicalities of Jewish observance. But one can be a Shomer Mitzvot – and be corrupt, even have idolatrous leanings, and not at all feel a connection with G-d. Those are greater focal points for me, because I assume observance of Mitzvot.

11)  If this is the Torah perspective, then why have there been so many rabbinic scandals- both financial and sexual- in the last few years?

It seems like a lot, but in actual numbers it is not that many in real terms. More than 3% of Americans are either in prison or on parole. What percentage of rabbis are miscreants? Far less. Of course that is small comfort when even one is too many. That being said, the Torah is perfect, not the Jews and certainly not the rabbis. A depraved person who learns Torah is lambasted by Chazal, because he will eventually use the Torah for his depraved purposes. Sadly, none of this is new.

12) Where do books you seem to have used like  Thomas Sowell and Frederich Hayek on economics, Frank Chodorov on libertarianism,  and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers fit into a Torah perspective?
In a general sense I am a big believer in “believe there is wisdom among the gentiles” “chochma bagoyim taamin.” If non-Jews have a particular insight into the world, or they frame a Torah concept in an especially enlightening way, then I am delighted to learn from them and use it. But “don’t accept that there is Torah among the gentiles” “Torah bagoyim al taamin” – they do not have a divine system through which they can sustain and transmit those ideas.

13) Is it just coincidence that the perspective in your book in favor of the small state, anti-union, pro-private property, pro free enterprise, and the importance of gun ownership is very similar to certain Republican platforms. If one is already a Republican with these positions, then why do I need Torah?

What’s the cart and what’s the horse? The Torah always has to be the foundation of all our ideas and values. To the extent that Torah ideas coincide in certain aspects to the Republican Party, I am gratified – for them. Good for them, but it doesn’t really affect us. In any event, the ideas and values in the Torah are of divine origin; the Republican Party platform? How shall we say it? Less so.

The puzzle then is why so many Jews are practicing Democrats – and the answer is that overwhelmingly they are not practicing Jews.    But when the Republican Party deviates or would deviate from the Torah, I would not hesitate at all backing away or repudiating that part of the platform. Bear in mind that politics in America is inherently secular but that Republicans are much more likely to be churchgoers and religious than are Democrats. That itself certainly plays a role in explaining the symmetrical aspects of the conservative philosophy and the norms of Torah.

14) Should shuls have gun clubs? What role does the gun club play in your shul?

The gun club is not officially part of Congregation Bnai Yeshuran  but most of its members are somewhat affiliated with the shul. We did offer (off premises) firearms training years ago for those interested many years ago. We also hosted karate for many years, which I consider quite similar. Self-defense is important for all Jews, a basic Torah requirement. We need not be squeamish about the right to defend ourselves. I do not believe we have any hunters in shul!

Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim

  1.       What is your concept of a national leader based on your book?

The ideal leader is a righteous autocrat who is wise, honest, humble and devoted to the welfare of his people. It is no coincidence that this models the philosopher-king; it should. The problem is that the theory is great but it is hard to find such people in reality, at least not in a sustained way. The failure of Jewish leadership in ancient times – and the accounts of the few exceptions – is the story of Jewish history.

  1.       How is the leader to bring national solidarity?

National solidarity, for Jews, comes from a shared sense of commitment to G-d’s service and therefore our national destiny. We all have the same mission but we were all given different roles in that mission. The task of the leader is to actualize the fulfillment of the national mission by facilitating the performance of the individual roles.

  1.       Why do we need pragmatic thinking in politics and to accept less than ideal judge who make  mistakes?

    I don’t think we have to “accept” poor leadership but the reality is that we have to endure it and overcome it. There is mediocrity in every field, so leadership is no exception. Personally, I think we are too hard on leaders who make mistakes. As long as they accept responsibility and have learned from them, they probably have an advantage over leaders who think they are infallible. In American politics today, there are no second acts. But Israel – and many other countries – has a habit of recycling leaders who have been rejected before. In fact, almost every prime minister in the last three decades has been booted out of office at least once and then restored – if not to the top job then to other top positions.

The world is divided into righteous and wicked, but most people are entrenched in that third category, the intermediates (beinonim). They will usually know what is right but lack the will to see it through.

  1.  What is the concept of the degradation of community?
    Often during the period of the Judges, when just part of the nation was attacked the tribes that were unaffected felt no need to join in the battle because they lost a sense of nationhood.. Too often, the Judges went to battle with just a small number of tribes, and even then participants had to be solicited. This happened to Gideon, Yiftach, and Shimshon’s case – when he had to fight alone – stands out even more. The sense of community – of nationhood – was lost, and as we saw, only a king governing from a new national center – Yerushalayim – could restore that unity.
  2.  In your opinion, why should Jews (or Israel) ignore the Geneva Conventions and other human rights conventions?

I am not saying Israel should categorically ignore the Conventions, which have a value even if they have changed over time. It does purport to regulate the conduct of war between nations, and does it successfully except when it does it spectacularly poorly (such as when a nation chooses to breach it and suffers no consequences – Syria, 2013). Nor did it help Jews during the Holocaust.  But if one side in a conflict vitiates the Conventions, then it is foolish to abide by them and give the enemy the advantage. E.g., an enemy that hides behind civilians, that attacks civilians, that does not fight in military uniform, etc. – in that context, the Conventions should not apply. Indeed, most of the world would not similarly restrict themselves, and so Israel should not be subject to that double standard.

  1.       Your position seems very different than those Roshei Yeshiva who teach that human dignity and human rights are never removed from a person. Do you have any thoughts on why you see things differently?

Not at all. I believe very strongly in human dignity and human rights because all human beings are created b’tzelem elokim. But I believe as well, and would be surprised if the other Centrist rabbanim did not, that human beings can so tarnish their image of G-d (tzelem elokim) that it is gone. That happens when a person becomes an animal, completely under the sway of the animal soul (nefesh habehami). Nazi murderers were in that category, like prehistoric man who did not possess an image of G-d.

I can’t believe that other Orthodox leaders would perceive them as human beings like the rest of us, just sinners. Those who wantonly stab innocent people because of their lust for Jewish blood are in the same category. Their image of G-d is so corroded that it is gone. That is why society executes those people.

Indeed, the executed prisoner is called the cursed of G-d. G-d had a certain plan for human beings when He created us and gave us an  Image of G-d. These murderers forfeited that and leaving them hanging from a tree is an “embarrassment” to G-d whose plan went awry. So hang them and take them down right away.

  1.  How and why do we use the prophets  of Navi for guidance?

If we can’t learn from it, then there would have been no point in recording it for posterity.  I make this point in the introduction to the book on Yehoshua: “The Jewish people had many prophets…so why are only the words of 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses recorded? Only the prophecy that was needed for future generations was written down, and that which was not needed for future generations was not written down (Megilah 14a).”

In Rabbi Wein’s approbation (haskama) to that book he wrote that it is “an excellent piece of work and scholarship. The danger in it and the criticism that you will undoubtedly receive is in your attempt to fit event and insights from Sefer Yehoshua to the present-day Israeli scene. Many of the leading rabbis of our time have warned against attempting such comparisons.” Wein continued his words: “However, this is not a unanimous opinion for otherwise what is the purpose of studying Tanach…”

Those are the two sides. My efforts were along those lines: to extract from Yehoshua and Shoftim – the books that describe the initial conquest and settlement of the land of Israel – all the lessons that we can apply to the modern conquest and settlement of the land of Israel. The similarities are eerie. And if we can’t gain this wisdom from the Navi, “what is the purpose of studying Tanach?”Actually, we do not learn halacha from Navi but only from Chazal, but this is a different quest.


The Resolution

The RCA statement on women’s ordination was both timely and tardy.

It was timely because waiting longer would have further greased the slippery slope towards a complete abandonment of Torah and Mesorah. In the absence of a formal resolution decreeing that the institution of female Jewish clergy is beyond the pale of Orthodoxy and insisting rabbis not hire nor shuls retain such clergy, in another few years  dozens of such clergywomen would have been ensconced in left-wing Orthodox synagogues. That would have created a schism in the Torah world that we can ill afford. Invariably, most Orthodox Jews would have shunned such synagogues, which would be the natural reflection of such a rift in the Torah world.

But the resolution was also five years too late, because, in many respects, the schism has already taken place. Previous resolutions were bland or toothless enough that it had little impact on proponents of the move, something I suspect contributed to the blandness of the statements in which proponents had a hand. But now the lines are very clearly delineated as to what is within the world of Torah and what is outside that holy framework. Once clarity has been obtained, then people can make their own decisions, but they cannot say they were not forewarned about the predictable costs of treading that well- worn path.

The resolution was necessary if only because the deviations have expanded over time, not receded. Parents warn their children not to play in the street and to watch for oncoming cars, and no one accuses parents of redundancy when these admonitions are issued every time the children leave home. Rabbis are not parents in this sense nor are the intended audience of this resolution to be construed as daydreaming children. But rabbis are guardians of the Mesorah, and the resolution is nothing less than a cry from the heart – a shriek of “Gevalt!” (for the Yiddishists) – that the road these women are merrily traveling on, with their supporters in tow, leads towards a cliff. They may not want to acknowledge that – may not? They certainly don’t – but that is the reality as seen from this perspective.

If rabbis cannot warn Jews that certain steps are deleterious to their spiritual futures, to the sanctity of the Jewish home, or to the proper observance of Torah – then who can? And who should? Much of the recent deviations from Torah have been fueled by the Western-inspired rejection of any objective authority. “Don’t tread on me! And I have the right to worship G-d in the way I choose!”

Indeed that is so – just don’t call it Orthodox. There needs to be a modicum of intellectual integrity in the pursuit of innovations. Integrity would demand an admission that the advocates recognize that they have strayed from the traditional path of Torah, are mimicking some of the deviations of the traditional non-Orthodox movements, and that what they are doing may be new and attractive to some, but it just is not Orthodoxy.

That the RCA and the Moetzet of Agudah should issue similar statements within days of each other should be cause for at least a second thought on the part of the proponents herein. To be sure, the advocates and feminists will dismiss it as a sign of Orthodoxy’s “turn to the right,” that hoary but meaningless cliché. Could there be another possibility, maybe, just maybe? Can you consider, just for a moment, that maybe these rabbis and spiritual leaders – representing the overwhelming majority of the Orthodox world – genuinely consider these deviations as heresy? Perhaps proponents – and certainly the fence-sitters – should entertain that possibility.

As I have said for years, one of the considerations that make such statements painful for our side is that so many of the proponents of heterodoxy are nice people, they mean well, and are sincere in their pursuit of change within the Torah world. They have much passion and enthusiasm for what they do and for what they believe, and passion and enthusiasm are precious commodities in Jewish life. Feelings are wonderful sensations, but the strongest feelings do not change the substance of the policies or programs. They remain outside the Torah framework. The founders of the non-Orthodox movements were also passionate people, sincere in their belief that their “modernization” of Jewish law would save generations of Jews from assimilation. That they failed miserably in that quest should concern the proponents of “Open Orthodoxy,” who seem to be doing the exact same thing the non-Orthodox did a century ago and hoping this time for different result (remember Einstein’s dictum…).

Much of the reaction has been typical of the ideological true believer, doubling down on their approach without the slightest bit of introspection. In some circles, it has been distinctly modern, if not a little childish – appeals to Facebook, social media, satire, scorn, obloquy, and maledictions. (Are there people who really believe that Facebook “likes” and petitions are part of the methodology of psak?) To accuse rabbis who reject female ordination of being “sexist” is, to say the least, both unsophisticated and unbecoming. Surely proponents can do better, and it might help if they looked a little beyond themselves and even beyond the secular, progressive feminist narrative that seems to animate many of them. No more proof of that assertion is needed than merely noting that non-Orthodox female rabbis have been honored guests at the Maharat ordination ceremonies.

No one on our side of the divide, as far as I know, has ever responded to these issues without careful consideration of what is permitted and forbidden, what is desirable or undesirable. It should worry advocates that the Torah world – both men and women – vehemently oppose what they are doing. It should worry advocates that Nechama Leibowitz z”l would have been disgusted and horrified by what they are doing, not to mention the Rav z”l. This whole issue is viewed by many through the prism of feminism. They sit in judgment of the Torah itself and adjudicate what comports with feminist doctrine and what must be discarded. How sad. I was a student of Nechama Leibowitz (and not a very good one, I concede) in the 1970’s, and not because she was a woman. When I open her sefarim these days, it is not because she was a woman. Both were because she was a teacher of Torah who had something magnificent to contribute to the world of Torah scholarship. But when the Torah – and Jewish law, and Jewish life – are seen only as vehicles to further a narrow agenda, such a movement is bound to fail.

Obviously there has been too much defensiveness over the last few years among too many rabbis in articulating the truth of Torah, as if we should be embarrassed by any Torah doctrine – as if we have achieved a level of piety and scholarship at which we can sit in judgment of the Torah itself, G-d forbid. That is one cause of the official reticence that has bedeviled the ModOs for years already.  Some purported leaders were intimidated into silence. But the core division today in Jewish life is between two groups, one that loves the Torah and sees it as perfect (temima, in King David’s locution) and one that doesn’t love the Torah as is, nor as perfect, and wishes to change it to conform to their contemporary moral predilections. In a free society, they are certainly entitled to do that, even if the loss of Jews to the Torah family is distressing to the rest of us. Just don’t call it Orthodox.

Some have argued that the resolution causes a schism in Jewish life. Indeed, the opposite is true; the goal is to avert a schism. The schism was caused by those who decided to repudiate the Mesorah and challenge the nature of rabbinic leadership that has existed since Sinai. So, who exactly is being divisive – the adherents to tradition or those who have gone their own way?  Others have maintained that the resolution did not go far enough; undoubtedly, some voted against the resolution on that basis. A peculiar argument has been adopted by some who said they are opposed to women’s ordination but voted against the resolution because it was repetitive. Of course, the RCA also passed “overwhelmingly” this year a resolution (that has already disappeared into the ether) decrying the BDS movement – an exact repetition of past resolutions on the same subject. So why vote for that redundancy? Oh, well, consistency is so limiting.

And others have stated that there is a great battle going on for the hearts and minds of today’s young people who are enamored with innovation, suspicious of authority, and averse to any type of restrictions imposed on them by an external system. Sadly, those who embrace this attitude are already lost. There are reasons why the population of the Jewish people has not grown in 2000 years, and religious persecution is only one reason. There is another – the persistent lure of heterodoxy and other heretical ideas that mislead Jews into thinking that what they are being taught is also Torah. By the time they realize it is not, if they do, they have already left the reservation, in effect rejecting something – Torah – that they never really possessed or understood. And this happened regardless of how well meaning the teachers, proponents, and even rabbis were of these novel approaches to Torah. To read some of the heresies emanating from various promoters of the new faith – rejection of the binding nature of halacha, rejection of the divine origin of Torah, a disparagement of Chazal, et al – one shudders at the realization that this cannot end well, and we as a people will be repeating the same pathetic mistakes of the past.

Many of us still harbor the hope that the deterioration can be arrested, that some needed soul-searching can be done by the men and women who see themselves in the vanguard of this new movement, and they can remain within the camp of Torah.

But, until then, they should really stop calling themselves Orthodox. I appreciate the aspiration, but I appreciate truth and clarity even more.


G-d’s Hand in History

(The following was published as an Op-ed in the Jewish Press, on September 11, 2015 –  RSP)

Fourteen years ago today the clenched fist of Arab-Islamic terror smashed into the United States of America, murdering almost three thousand innocent souls, devastating lives, shaking America (at least temporarily) out of its complacency and nudging the American polity into several Middle Eastern wars. Those wars have not ended well; indeed, the situation on the ground has become more violent and deadly. The desultory and reluctant conduct of these wars by the Obama administration – snatching defeat from the jaws of potential victory – has left the region and the world on the verge of accommodating Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Iranian hegemony over much of the Middle East.

On an individual level, the brutal and unprovoked attacks on September 11, 2001 were a vivid reminder of the fragility of life. Thousands of people at work or on their way to work rose that morning in anticipation of a normal, uneventful day, just going about their daily routines until such time as they would return to their families and loved ones. Alas, their good-byes that morning were the last ones they would extend, their lives ended in sudden acts of unimaginable horror. When the Yamim Noraim begin, we remind ourselves repeatedly of our own vulnerabilities, the tenuousness of life itself, our gratitude for the gifts and opportunities

Hashem  has bestowed upon us – each according to His will – and of our rededication to utilizing those gifts and opportunities in His service. That is the judgment of the individual that consumes most of our attention.

But there is another judgment occurring on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippurim whose stakes are even greater than the judgment of individuals, and which this anniversary of the Arab terror of 9/11 renders so palpable: the judgment of nations.

As we say in the Musaf of Rosh Hashana, in the blessing of Zichronot (“Remembrances”): “And of the nations it shall be said: Which one will merit peace, and which one the sword? Which one will suffer famine and which will enjoy plenty? And all creatures will be remembered and recorded for life or for death.” It is true that the suffering of nations is felt most in the travails that befall the individual – but it is also true that even innocent individuals can be ensnared in the tribulations of nations and suffer accordingly. We live as individuals, but we also have our fates intertwined with those of the country in which we reside and that country’s enemies and adversaries.

If we have some (emphasis, some) control over our own fates – “Repentance, prayer and charity avert the harshness of the [divine] decree” – how do we understand our almost complete helplessness in avoiding the consequences of the national judgments that also take place? Are we just pawns in history, bounced by forces beyond our control? Is it possible to understand G-d’s plan in history beyond the rough outline provided to us in the Torah and the words of the Nevi’im ? Is there a divine message that we can discern amid the murkiness and gloom of today’s global scene – in which country after country, seemingly without any end in sight, is battered by terror and war, refugees and displacement, evil and its bitterest enemy, apathy?

G-d’s ways are inscrutable, and even if the last chapter is known to us – the coming of Moshiach – the prior chapters are still being written and read. But one thing should be clear to all Jews: world events are designed to shake us out of our lethargy and embrace our divinely-ordained role in history.

The Gemara (Yevamot 63b) states that “punishment does not befall the world except on account of the Jewish people.” It is not that we bring misfortune to the world, G-d forbid, as our and G-d’s enemies are fond of saying; the exact opposite is the case. The Jewish people have brought untold blessings to mankind from the very beginning of our existence and down to our very day. The world benefits from the technological, scientific and intellectual genius of the Jewish people and is continually challenged by the moral code of conduct to which we aspire. That has been reciprocated, often and in many places still today, with hatred, overt or subtle, with physical violence and rhetorical scorn, and with persistent, baseless and scurrilous attacks on Israel’s legitimacy and/or conduct, all thinly-disguised assaults on the Jewish people.

Some wage open war on Jews across the globe. Others, especially the hostile elements in Europe and America, are still inhibited by the rancid Jew hatred of the Holocaust and so hide their contempt for all Jews behind the veneer of hatred for Israel – BDS and the like. All of this is contemptible and lamentable but little of it is new. It has accompanied us since Sinai, and the spasms of violence that erupt across the globe – so Chazal are teaching us – are on our “account.” When they fight against us, it is because they are waging war against the Jewish idea. But even when they fight each other, and bring enormous, unspeakable suffering upon themselves, at the root of their discontent is the distortion of the Jewish idea and a rejection of   G-d’s plan for mankind.

As Rabbi Berel Wein once explained, “it’s because of us but it’s not our fault.”

The Wall Street Journal (April 3, 2015) featured a graph that noted the current population of the world’s religions and their future growth. (By 2050, the global Muslim population will almost match the global Christian population, each near 2.8 billion people.) Today, there are 2.17 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.4 billion Hindus, even 1.3 billion unaffiliated. At the very bottom of the graph – the last line – are the Jews, hovering at or above (!) zero. We are not even a rounding error in the world’s population, less than that. We are not just statistically insignificant; we are statistically improbable.

“Hashem did not desire you or choose you because of your numbers, for you are the smallest among the nations” (Devarim 7:7). Yet, history revolves around the Jewish people. We are not afforded the luxury of being bystanders but rather of being in the forefront of every major world event and discovery. Our national homeland was not placed at the end of the world – say, New Zealand – where we could safely develop our spiritual aptitudes far from the madding crowd and high above the fray but rather at the crossroads of civilization and in the middle of every conflict.

No nation in the world tries harder to do good to all – even strangers – and no nation is as despised and reviled for those efforts. What does it all mean?

It means that G-d chose us as His vehicle to bring His morality to the world and effectuate His will in history. Rav Shlomo Aviner is fond of quoting Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), the famed Italian philosopher and historian who posited – three centuries ago – that whereas the histories of the nations of the world are profane (meaning secular, guided by natural and political forces), the history of the Jewish people is sacred, directed by G-d, and not at all bound by the general laws of history. What applies to other nations and what happens to other nations simply do not apply or happen to us.

It is astonishing that Vico should have recognized that; it is even more astonishing when we – the Jewish people – do not and instead go about our business as if our destiny is that of all nations.

Rav Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook zt”l regularly expounded what he called “Masechet Yisrael,” the “Tractate of the People of Israel,” both because it was worthy of study and because it underscored G-d’s plan for us in history. He highlighted three phenomenal dimensions – wonders – of the Jewish people: the wonders of our abilities, our survival and our influence. (See, for example, Rav Aviner’s annotated edition of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook’s “Orot, Yisrael U’techiyato,” footnote 266.)

We are an extraordinarily talented people, whose contributions to mankind have transformed the lives of billions of people. We need not even mention the disproportionate share of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, a mindboggling statistic that defies rational analysis. As a nation, we have been endowed by the Creator with capabilities that are designed to facilitate mankind’s pursuit of moral perfection, the material good and the welfare of all. The former is the very purpose for which we were given the Torah and prophecy.

The wonder of our survival continues to defy comprehension. No people has ever suffered the devastation of invasion, defeat, destruction, and exile – and twice – and then remained an intact nation that reclaimed its ancient homeland after 19 centuries. It is so inexplicable in human terms that it is the source of relentless irritation to our enemies, who deny it formally but are awed by it privately.

And, despite our insignificant and paltry numbers, the influence of the people of Israel on world events is itself astounding. Scarcely a day goes by without a Jew or the Jewish people in the headlines. The preoccupation of the world – actually, the obsession of the world – with the tiny State of Israel is a constant reminder to us of the expectations that the world has for the Jewish people, our outsized impact on social trends and political movements, and the uneasiness of the world’s powers with this upstart nation that, as the boxing saying goes, punches far beyond its weight class. It has been repeatedly noted that Jews have been in the forefront of great social and intellectual movements of the last two centuries – some good, some not so good – Jews like Freud, Marx, Einstein and others. Many of the high-tech innovations that have revolutionized modern life have originated in Israel.

These are all “wonders,” but none are inherently innate to the Jewish people. They are gifts from Heaven, all intended to provide us the tools with which we can carry out G-d’s will for mankind. Occasionally, perhaps more often than that, we have used these gifts inappropriately, for our own self-aggrandizement or for mere physical gratification, and forgotten or ignored the Giver and the purposes for which it was given. At those moments in history, we are sent reminders, sometimes gentle ones and sometimes less so, that we have strayed from the proper path. The road to return then opens before us, if our eyes wish to see and our hearts are receptive to the messages.

The Torah we were given, Rav Avraham Kook wrote (Orot, Yisrael U’techiyato, Chapter 5) is “not the imagining of the heart, not human ethics, not just worthy desires or appropriate fantasies, not the abandonment of the material world in any of its aspects, not the rejection of the body because of its ‘impurity,’ not the renunciation of life, society, government and authority because of their lowliness, and not the repudiation of the world and its natural forces that were corrupted by sinful man – but rather the exaltation of all of the above.”

This is the future towards which we are heading, notwithstanding all the challenges we face, the incessant Jew hatred that still afflicts too much of the world, the seemingly endless terror and war that is thrust upon us and other good people, and the rebuff of the Divine idea and moral code that is at the core of mankind’s discontent and moral perversions.

“Those who rise up against Israel rise up against G-d” (Tanchuma, Beshalach 16). It is a truism of history that wars against the Jewish people are a displacement for the real adversary that confounds our enemies – their war with the Creator (see Rambam’s Epistle to Yemen). We are simply convenient targets, but attacks on the Jewish people elicit a Divine response in history, and judgment of those nations ensues.

On the annual Day of Judgment, each person is judged both as an individual and as part of a nation. We live our lives not only to perfect our souls in this world but also to advance the goals of the Creator. If our personal judgments are enigmatic, then our judgment insofar as we are part of a nation is even more impenetrable. Those are the mysteries of life and are the exclusive domain of the Judge of all mankind. We can never comprehend why some lives were snuffed out by the godless forces of evil and other lives were spared. All we can do is thank Hashem for His blessings and commit our lives and resources to living in broad, historical terms and not just in the mundane matters of daily life.

The Gemara states (Sanhedrin 97b): “Rabi Eliezer said: ‘if the Jewish people repent they will be redeemed, and if not, they will not be redeemed.’ Rabi Yehoshua said to him: ‘if they don’t repent, they won’t be redeemed? Rather the Holy One, Blessed be He, will cause a king to rise over them whose decrees are as harsh as those of Haman, and they will repent and be restored to the good.”

The king whose decrees will spur our repentance is not someone like Nimrod, Pharaoh, Nevuchadnetzar or Titus; it is someone like Haman – a Persian descendant of Amalek who harbored genocidal ambitions against the people of Israel.

Some things never change.

And some things can change. When we realize our individual vulnerabilities, the opportunities we have been given and the great stakes before us, the moment for both individual and national teshuva beckons. May we all be worthy of inscription in the book of life, and may the current turmoil and our response to it prepare us for redemption and the coming of Moshiach.

The Sobbing Mother of Sisera

Is there a more peculiar intruder into our Rosh Hashana service than the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite general who fought against Devorah and Barak, and who is the reference point for so many of our shofar practices? The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 33b) was in doubt as to the precise nature of the teruah sound, because the Torah does not define it. But the Targum interprets that as a yevava, and the Gemara elaborates that it is written in the reference to the mother of Sisera that she “wailed,” Vateyabeiv. One opinion held that she groaned (like the shevarim) and the other held she wailed (like our teruah). So we do both. And all because Sisera’s mother wailed we know how to blow the shofar?

There is more. Tosafot there quote the Aruch, Rav Yechiel of Rome, a contemporary of Rashi, that we blow 100 sounds of the shofar to correspond to the 100 cries of Sisera’s mother. Again, Sisera’s mother. Who exactly are we talking about?

Sisera was the general of Canaan, who tormented the Jews and conquered others, who dedicated his life to killing and marauding, who, when he attacked Israel in this instance with overwhelming force – nine hundred iron chariots – was met by a smaller army led by Devorah and Barak, and was routed. He fled the battlefield into the arms of  Yael, who in short order fed him, bed him – and then killed him.

And Devorah sang about his mother (Shoftim 5:28-30) – even a killer has a mother: “The mother of Sisera sat by the window, gazing through the lattices, sobbing, ‘why does his chariot tarry in coming? Why are the wheels of his chariot late?’” And the princesses tried to comfort her:  “They must be dividing the spoils, seizing the maidens for themselves.” But Sisera’s mother knew better, and so “she wailed.”

It’s a poignant story until we stop and realizing that she is crying over his lack of success – this time – in murdering Jews and in conquering the land of Israel. Her son was exceedingly wicked, and we should curse the day on which she gave birth to him. So why is she the source of our shofar practices? What is it that happened to her that we want to recall?

Over the last few months, a number of people have asked me: is the world falling apart? Is this the worst it’s ever been – wars, plagues, terror, insecurity, uncertainty? The answer is – not by a long shot. But there is one thing to ponder, especially as on Rosh Hashana, when all nations are judged: “who will be afflicted by the sword, who will live in peace, who will suffer from famine, and who will have plenty.”

The Midrash (Midrash Tannaim Devarim 32) states: “Contemplate the years of every generation. There is no generation in which there are not some people like the generation of the flood, some like the generation of the dispersion, some like the people of Sodom, some like Korach and his cohorts.” Every generation contains these people. They are not unique.

If you think that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it – you are wrong. Those who remember the past are also doomed to repeat it! “Contemplate the years of every generation.” Look around: every generation has vestiges of the generation of the flood, morally depraved and outspoken about it, not at all reticent and sometimes even boastful; every generation contains remnants of the generation of the dispersion, who deny G-d and set themselves over mankind as rulers and dictators; every generation has echoes of Sodom, its greed, selfishness and violence; every generation has its Korach, who denies the Mesorah and think they know better than G-d what the Torah should say. They challenge the Torah leadership with their populism and sophistry.

If so, what is new? To what is there to look forward? Is the whole script laid out for us? No. The Midrash continues: “each person is judged according to his deeds.” No one is compelled to be a Korach, or like Sodom, or like the generations of the dispersion or flood. It’s not all bleak – both Adam and Moshe were shown “the book of the genealogies of man” – “every generation has its seekers, its wise people, its scholars, and its leaders (Breisheet Raba 24:2). Every person has the ability to write his own page in that book, the Sefer Toldot Adam, the book that was originally published on Rosh Hashana, “this day was the beginning of Your work.”

Too often we think that we are set, we are who we are, and it is what it is. And nothing can change. Just another day, another month, another year, another Rosh Hashana. Sometimes it’s because we have given up, and other times because we are secure in who we are, certain about our course in life and our future. Everything is laid out for us, all going according to plan. We become very comfortable with our course in life, sometimes even with our sins – not even knowing or admitting they are sins.

We sit by the window, looking out at the world, and everything is familiar and recurring – until it is not. Rav Soloveitchik explained that Sisera’s mother had a routine. She knew he would win, even knew when to expect him back from the battlefield. She knew that he would return triumphant, with the spoils of war, with the laurels of his admirers, with the dread of the vanquished. She was certain – that was her life.

“The mother of Sisera sat by the window, gazing through the lattices…” As she sat there, she started to sob, then to wail, then to mourn. Her certainty – about herself, about her son, about his and her destiny – was an illusion. It wasn’t real. As she uttered the words – “Why does his chariot tarry in coming? Why is he late today?” – she already knew the bitter truth: her world had suddenly changed. There is nothing in life set in stone. Not my life, not my choices, not my fate.

If our generation contains Nimrod, Pharaoh, and Korach in some form, if it has its share of hedonists, sadists and terrorists of all kinds, that is an unfortunate reality. But realize that our generation also has its true seekers of G-d, Torah scholars, righteous people and purveyors of kindness. So be in the latter group – nothing is fixed – even in the most troubled era, “each person is judged according to his deeds.”

The shofar draws its inspiration not from the anguish of Sisera’s mother, and not because we feel sorry for her, but because we want the shofar to awaken us, to shake us, like it did Sisera’s mother, to grab hold of us and say “life is precious, life is short, there is much to do.” Take nothing for granted, not the least of which one’s religious level in life and one’s aspirations. Everyone can grow and everyone can improve.

The wails of Sisera’s mother are the quality of the sounds of the shofar that penetrate our souls, and her one hundred sobs are the quantity that we require to soften our hearts. We can’t change the world, only our small place in it, beginning with ourselves. Thus we pray that the sounds of the shofar will break through and signal our acceptance of G-d’s sovereignty so we may merit G-d’s mercies on us and our families, on our people, our land and our holy city of Yerushalayim, for a year of life of good health, prosperity and peace.



Versions of Conversions

There are few things that are not politicized in Israel and none more so than the interface of religion and state. Add to that society’s tendency to see every disagreement as a tempest and every tempest as a conflagration, and the news cycle loudly trumpets every innovation or deviation, extracts from them what is necessary to further the media or various interest groups’ agendas – and then moves on.

That and more explains the controversial decision this week by a group of Religious-Zionist rabbis to initiate their own conversion program, largely aimed at averting what is perceived as the crisis of status of Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to halacha – numbering at least 300,000 people and perhaps many more. The subtext is an attempt to bypass, weaken and perhaps even replace the Chief Rabbinate and all its constituents.

As there are already a small number of independent conversion courts, why then is this one – headed by Rav David Stav – so controversial? Why is the Chief Rabbinate against it? And why have many other Religious-Zionist rabbis – luminaries such as Rav Druckman, Rav Lior, Rav Levanon, Rav Baruch Efrati and others – come out vehemently in opposition to this new Bet Din?

Parenthetically, many of the main protagonists here are personally known to me, and I respect all of them. And, granted, it is never good when rabbis argue in public (or in private, for that matter). Of course, all rabbinic disputes are conducted for the sake of Heaven, except when they are not, and sometimes “for the sake of Heaven” has to be defined somewhat loosely. So what is going on?

There is a combustible mix of personalities, hashkafa, normative v. lenient interpretations of halacha, the perceived Haredization of the Rabbinate, bitterness over election defeats and genuine concern over the status of the olim from the FSU who are not construed as full Jews. Where to begin?

Proponents of the new Bet Din announced this week that they had converted a number of children, and child conversion has always been perceived as a way out of this morass. While adult conversion requires the full acceptance of mitzvot, the conversion of a minor who cannot formally accept mitzvot is done “al daat Bet Din,” upon the authority and with the approval and guidance of the Jewish court. It is as if the Bet Din stands in loco parentis and issues its guarantee that the child will be observant when he/she comes of age and has the right to renounce the conversion done on his/her behalf.

The operative principle is the Talmudic notion that we are allowed to confer a benefit on someone even if they are unaware it (as opposed to the assessment of a liability, which requires his knowledge and consent. The working assumption is that attaining the status of a Jew is a benefit – but (so holds the majority opinion) only if the child will be a practicing, observant Jew. To take a non-Jew, convert him, and serve him a ham sandwich renders him liable for actions that were permitted to him in his prior situation. That would be unfair to the convert.

Here’s the dilemma: if a child is born to a non-Jewish mother, or is adopted from two non-Jewish parents, and is then raised in a home that is not observant of mitzvot, can the Bet Din credibly say that the child will live as an observant Jew? On what grounds could such a presumption be made? In a centralized conversion system with defined rules, such a child might be converted only if the parents embrace fundamental mitzvot such as Shabbat, Kashrut, membership in an Orthodox shul and a commitment to send the child to yeshiva. That gives confidence to the Bet Din that the child will not only be Jewish but live and behave like a Jew.

It is an open question whether such is possible in a decentralized, independent system in which no demands are made on the parents and the motivation to convert lies outside the system of halacha and is rooted in nationalist concerns.

Thus, the other day on the radio, one of the proponents of the new Bet Din was underscoring its importance to Israeli society by engaging, unbeknownst to him, in a series of non sequiturs. He explained that leniency is required in all these conversions because there are too many people living in Israel who are not Jews but speak Hebrew, serve in the army, interact with society and marry Jews. “The rate of intermarriage is escalating!” All that might be true but is not really relevant. Hebrew speech, army service, and participation in Israeli society may define someone as an Israeli but it does not make them a Jew according to halacha. There are thousands of Sudanese children who speak Hebrew; that doesn’t make them Jews. Even the fear of intermarriage cannot be allayed by mass conversion of those ineligible, as the American experience teaches us. Frivolous conversions designed to forestall intermarriages just lead the parties to discount the necessity of conversion altogether. Becoming a Jew should require something more than becoming a member of AAA.

Some want to rely on a minority view that people with Jewish fathers (“zera Yisrael”) should have an easier route to conversion. There is some logic to that, especially when those individuals always saw themselves as Jews. They do not feel the sense of displacement of their prior lives that converts who are complete outsiders have. But the classical sources recognize only the full acceptance of mitzvot – accompanied by the requisite ritual acts – as the tickets of entry into the Jewish people. Zera Yisrael, as a mitigator of Kabbalat Hamitzvot, is something new, as it tends to undermine the conventional standard of Jewishness determined by the mother’s status.

The ease with which the radio speaker conflated Israeli-hood with Jewishness belied the reality that those two designations intersect but are not identical. The proof is that there are over one million Israelis who are not Jews. Moreover, the speaker’s contention that the conversions planned for adults will entail full “Kabbalat Hamitzvot” is also not credible; if it were, the authorized Bet Din of the Rabbanut could do (and does) the same. Obviously, then, the standards have to be reduced in order to accommodate the purported masses who wish to convert but cannot do so (only a few thousand apply to convert now annually in Israel) because they cannot or will not embrace the mitzvot.

This is not to belittle the problem, which was caused by the mass immigration of Soviet citizens under a Law of Return that employed Hitler’s standard of Jewishness (one Jewish grandparent) rather than that of the Torah. But the problem is not solved by creating a second tier of converts whose status will be disputed from generation to generation. And, as noted here repeatedly, the Knesset or Supreme Court can determine who is an Israeli. It has no authority to alter the requirements for conversion to Judaism any more than it can change Shabbat from Saturday to Sunday. Of course if the parents genuinely grow in their Torah commitment then the conversion of minors will be effective and resolve most of the problem within a generation or two.

But the solution to a Torah problem does not rest in abrogating Torah principles but in handling all cases individually and sensitively.

That is easier said than done. The Rabbanut has been plagued for quite some time by the presence of some petty bureaucrats who seem to delight in posing obstacles, fabricating demands and even challenging the acceptability of conversions from rabbis whose conversions were properly accepted – and for a long, long time. In truth, little of this is ever known by the Chief Rabbis, any more than the CEO of a manufacturing company will know whether or not the floor worker is tightening every screw. He won’t – but he will have to pick up the pieces when it is discovered that the screws were not tightened properly.

These indignities are too common. A venerable rabbi originally from North America just told me of his dismay in having a conversion of his rejected by a bureaucrat forty years younger than him who merely said “I don’t know who you are,” even if older rabbis there did know and accept him. That is disgraceful, but not as much as the rejection of the young woman who had converted as an infant, was raised fully observant and now told she had to re-convert in order to marry in Israel.

That type of “tormenting the convert,” a Torah prohibition, should invalidate any rabbinic bureaucrat from serving in that capacity, for he is less observant that the people on whom he is sitting in judgment. That too has to change, and competition in that sphere would be wonderful except for the chaos that it causes.

And chaos is would be. Rav Stav ran for Chief Rabbi, campaigning for the establishment of the very Bet Din that he has now established. But he lost, and post-election recriminations never look good. And changes are afoot even in the Rabbanut, but all bureaucracies grind slowly if they grind at all. The Chief Rabbi, Rav David Lau, is perceived as a typical Haredi by those who do not know him, but…and what if he were? If the Haredi world are the holdouts in preserving the purity of Torah law from the modernists who often yearn to shape the Torah according to the prevailing winds, then so be it. We need them.

The irony is that Rav Kook wrote that the galut was noted for its fragmentation of Jewish life whereas as we move closer to the Messianic era – including the re-establishment of the Jewish state – we would once again merit “rikuziyut,” centralization of religious function and national life. Centralization – the bane of modernists who seek the freedom to innovate and compromise without consequences – is actually an indicator of growing unity in the Jewish world that will render us amenable to the coming of Moshiach. Odd, indeed, that the so-called Haredim wish to preserve the Rabbanut (of course, I recognize that they use it largely for their own purposes and discount it when they wish…) while some of the followers of Rav Kook wish to dismantle it. Strange world!

Not every single problem can be resolved. Life is complicated, and the complicated is complicated for a reason. But individuals who genuinely want to be – or have been for decades – part of the Torah world should never be scorned, turned away or disparaged.

What cannot be gainsaid is the assault on rabbinic authority implicit in this new Bet Din (as well as others that have sprung up across the Jewish world because they have found “solutions” to intractable problems, those “solutions” simply being rejected past practices). As this Bet Din undermines the authority of the Rabbanut, so too some other group will reject the authority of the new Bet Din, as a fourth will then spurn the authority of the third. The result is anarchy and the complete collapse of any enduring sense of Jewish nationhood and the unity of Torah.

There is a better way, and it would be best if all parties stepped back from the precipice and found that better way through dialogue of the wise rather than the acts of the impatient.

Ten Years Later

Here in Israel, confrontations between the authorities and settlers of the land of Israel have again heated up this week, with scenes  of destroyed Jewish homes conjuring up painful images from the past. Ten years after the expulsion of thousands of Jews from Gaza and the northern Shomron, the destruction of their homes and the resultant vulnerability of Jews throughout most of Israel, it is hard for any reasonable person to claim that the Expulsion was not a colossal mistake, a national humiliation, and an historic blunder that political scientists will ponder for generations. The entire rationale for the Expulsion collapsed within months of its execution, and with the perspective of a decade, it is clear that none of the justifications for expelling Jews from their homes and renouncing Jewish sovereignty over part of the land of Israel were valid. None of the purported goals were achieved.

The security situation has obviously deteriorated. More Israelis have been killed in Gaza in the last ten years – without any Jews even living there – than were killed in the ten years preceding the Expulsion. Surrender of that land to a terror entity resulted – as predicted – in Gaza becoming a base for terror operations against Israel, with thousands of rockets falling on surrounding communities (and some landing as far as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Airport). Despite the claims made prior to the Expulsion, Israel has not been able to easily return to halt the rocket terror, to pre-empt any attacks, and to thwart terrorist acts. Israel struggles even to keep out deadlier rockets, missiles and weaponry from Gaza.

Israel has had to fight three major battles, all costlier in the number of casualties because of the difficulty of re-entry. Rather than launch its operations as it did before 2005 from the settlements and bases within Gaza, Israel has several times risked its soldiers’ lives by even venturing 100 meters into Gaza. The entire border seems to be one minefield, with booby-trapped homes, roads and buildings – not to mention the tunnels that Hamas has dug into Israel for the purpose of perpetrating terror in the future with many of those tunnels still undiscovered.

Rather than make the IDF’s job easier by shortening its defensive lines, it has complicated the task of defending Israel’s borders against the terrorists. The proof rests in the hundreds of casualties sustained to date defending southern Israel against the Gazan marauders. Just last week, General Yair Naveh (who participated in the Expulsion) opined that PM Ariel Sharon did not consult the IDF General Staff, which, he says, was largely opposed to the unilateral evacuation of Gaza. Of course, now he says he too was opposed to the Expulsion (that he oversaw) but did not wish to resign over it. He should spare us his commentary, and his revisionism. The Expulsion was a military nightmare.

Similarly, it was claimed that withdrawal from Gaza would be welcomed by the world, who would be so enamored with Israel’s magnanimity and yearning for peace that it would usher in an era of mutual respect and brotherhood. Israel would join the family of nations and be respected and esteemed for its sacrifices for peace.

That hasn’t quite worked out the way it was planned, either. The world community did celebrate Israel’s withdrawal (although, truth be told, the Bush Administration was not thrilled with it, as many foresaw a takeover of Gaza by Hamas and the creation of a new base of terror there; indeed, even ISIS has set up a regional headquarters in Gaza). But the world’s celebration of Israel’s self-inflicted wound was short-lived. Each subsequent incursion into Gaza has provoked the enmity and wrath of the putative celebrants, with persistent accusations of war crimes against any Israeli action in Gaza. The BDS movement was jump-started after the Expulsion, as were the threats of prosecution against Israel’s fighters and the continued efforts of the Palestine Authority to declare statehood through the United Nations. Israel is now perceived as less entitled to any of its land rather than more entitled by virtue of its “flexibility.” Israel is even still widely perceived as an “occupier” of Gaza! No nation has cut Israel any slack for all its sacrifices. The Expulsion was a diplomatic disaster. Those who argue that, well, Israel had to try something just to give its people and others hope are likely the same people who today support the Bad Deal with Iran, because, well, you sometimes just have to try something to give people hope.

Those who rejoiced in no longer having to patrol Gaza must find little comfort in their bomb shelters in Tel Aviv, if they make the association at all. But even that little comfort must dissipate when they reflect that as they attempt to shield themselves from Hamas missiles coming from Gaza, the world still considers Israel the aggressor! Indeed, as too many Israelis perceived Gush Katif as not really the land of Israel and as the subject of an illegal occupation, too many people across the world today have that same attitude…towards Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel, all, to them, illegally occupied land that rightfully belongs to the Palestinians. So rather than buttress Israel’s case for its sovereignty over the land of Israel, the Expulsion from Gaza undermined it, and it will take many more years to recover from that diplomatic and hashkafic debacle.

And the Expulsion was a personal disaster for everyone involved. Obviously the expellees themselves – and many others – never thought it would happen and so were ill-prepared when it did. Many never recovered and of those who did, credit goes less to the Israeli government than to the compassionate hearts of their fellow Jews who held their hands and saw to it – as best possible – that they should be able to get back on their feet.

But it is astonishing – and eerie, controversial and unsettling –to examine the fate of the individuals responsible for the Expulsion, especially the political and military leaders who perpetrated. The issue itself has engendered much discussion in Israel, although many have been aware of it for years. The strangest things have happened to those leaders, as will be detailed below.

A recent edition of the Israeli weekly Besheva discussed this state of affairs and engenders these questions: Do we believe that G-d punishes wrongdoers before our eyes to clarify for all what is right and wrong? Can we deduce from the fates of these leaders that Heaven did not support their activities? Is there Justice and is there a Judge?

Rav Dov Lior, recently retired Rav of the Holy City of Hevron, stated unequivocally that we are both allowed and mandated to draw conclusions. He cites the Rambam (Hilchot Taanit 1:3) that when troubles befall any person, he has to first examine his deeds and not attribute his travails to coincidence or randomness. “Whoever harms the settlement of Jews in the land of Israel is punished in this world,” said Rav Lior, “just like the biblical spies were.”  Strong words, for sure.

Rav David Stav, head of Tzohar, perceives this matter differently. Discerning G-d’s calculations might be true but it is also very seductive and misleading. The price to be paid for this approach is that a lack of punishment of one whom we presume to be wicked should therefore be perceived as a vindication or justification for his actions. Someone who does something and is not punished for it could then argue that what he did was right. “Shall we then intrude into G-d’s calculations?”

Which approach is correct? Both? Neither? Is the subject matter fraught with arrogance and insensitivity but also possibly with heresy and sacrilege?

Consider the fates of just some of the perpetrators of the Expulsion from Gaza, as noted in Besheva:

Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister who concocted this scheme, was felled by a stroke less than six months after the Expulsion. He never recovered, and spent the last eight years of his life in “exile,” literally suspended between heaven and earth, between the living and the dead.

Moshe Katzav, the President of Israel at the time, was soon thereafter convicted of rape and still sits in prison.

Then Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert left office in disgrace after his failed leadership during the Second Lebanon War, and now stands convicted of multiple counts of bribery and fraud. He awaits his own prison term.

Omri Sharon, Sharon’s son who formulated the plan together with his father, went to prison for bribery.

Omri Bar Lev, the police commander who led the evacuation? His own house collapsed. Literally. Just collapsed.

Nisso Shacham, a police commander who was caught on camera acting in a vulgar and brutal manner as he expelled Jews from their home, rose to become the commander of the Jerusalem District and then was relieved of his post while facing accusations of multiple rapes and sexual abuse.

Moshe Karadi, Inspector-General of the Police, was dismissed for negligence and incompetence involving the investigation of an unrelated police scandal.

There are even others who participated in the dismemberment of Jews from their homes and who have suffered unusual fates. Conversely, Moshe Yaalon, who opposed the Expulsion as Chief of Staff and was not re-appointed by Sharon, today serves as Minister of Defense. One other prominent Likudnik who resigned from the Sharon government because of his (late, but nonetheless overt) opposition to the Expulsion is Binyamin Netanyahu, now in the seventh year of his second tenure as Prime Minister.

Undoubtedly, there are others who participated in the Expulsion who have not been “punished;” perhaps they have other good deeds to their credit.

How should we approach such a delicate subject? I tend to fall on Rav Stav’s side of the fence here and do not presume to understand how G-d runs His world and executes His justice, and certainly not to see cause and effect in the lives of individuals. It is dangerous, and does engender a slippery slope. It is not too distant from these speculations to concluding that someone suffered a tragedy because a Mezuzah was found to be invalid or some such other facile answer. On the other hand, how can we completely discount G-d’s hand in human affairs? That too would be heretical.

It’s a paradox. To ignore or dismiss these strange happenings is close to denying Providence; to render definitive conclusions is haughty and presumes to know G-d’s will. For sure, one who experiences suffering should first examine his own deeds (Masechet Berachot 5a), which is not the same as examining someone else’s deeds as the cause of their suffering.

In any event, it should give us pause to reflect, to think and to wonder – and to pray that the Jewish people never have to witness the forced expulsion of Jews from our ancestral homeland and the surrender of Jewish sovereignty to our enemies. The scenes this week from Bet El are discouraging. Nevertheless, may we all learn from our mistakes and together strengthen the people of Israel in the struggles ahead against real enemies.

Our Generation’s Mechitza

Has Modern Orthodoxy lost its way?

We can’t begin to answer that question without a working definition of Modern Orthodoxy, something that seems to bewilder many people. I have always embraced the definition suggested by my teacher, Rav Aharon Rakeffet, shlit”a, that a Modern Orthodox Jew is “a Torah Jew in a Western milieu.” That seems about right, because the cornerstone – the foundation – must always be the Torah. The Torah Jew in a Western milieu will encounter challenges that he simply would not meet and require applications that would not be necessary in a more cloistered environment.

To read some of the reactions of the fringe Orthodox left – if they are even still part of the Torah world – to the Supreme Court’s recognition of same sex marriage is to conclude inevitably that a certain wing of Modern Orthodoxy has fallen out of the skies. Suggestions abound that as a result of the new ruling the Torah must change, that Torah Jews must accept this decision or be adjudged guilty of some unspecified moral outrage, that failure to embrace the homosexual agenda will lead to mass defections from Torah, that this sin is different from all other sins because it is popular in the circles of elitist opinion makers, that we should abandon our propagation of the seven Noachide laws, etc.  Really? It is fair to ask: Who are these people? Do they think that they are the very first generation of Jews that ever faced a conflict between the Torah and some “modern” value? Remember that ancient Greek and ancient Roman values were quite “modern” in ancient times. Indeed, every generation has faced a divergence between Torah values and some contemporary norm, otherwise there wouldn’t be a need for the Torah and surrender to the will of G-d would be superfluous.

The grave error they make is in perceiving modernity as the anchor – the pillar around which the Torah has to be manipulated and reformed. To put it in our language, modernity to them is the ikar (essence) and the Torah is tafel (secondary), G-d forbid.  Those attitudes give Modern Orthodoxy a bad name, and any Torah Jew would be justified in rejecting it.

There is another issue, however, that has drawn much attention and has emerged as the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable interpretations of Modern Orthodoxy, and that is the matter of women’s ordination. Jewish and general newspapers are inundated on a weekly basis with reports of new ordinations, new hiring, and new candidates. It is as if a PR firm recommended that advocates flood the print media as often as possible – daily? –to give the impression that this phenomenon is growing in acceptance, is normative, and opposed only by a handful of sexist troglodytes who have moved to the extreme right where they belong and are best forgotten.

Far from it.

The inadmissibility of female ordination needs no prolonged discussion. (I’ve written extensively on it, including here .) It was so obvious to Professor Shaul Lieberman z”l of the Jewish Theological Seminary that he dismissed it 35 years ago as “a joke and mockery.” Orthodox Jews across the spectrum rejected it as heretical when Reform Judaism and then Conservative Judaism introduced women rabbis a few decades ago.  The title doesn’t matter, and too much time has been wasted creating and then arguing over various acronyms that all purport to do the same thing but, to some, in more palatable ways. I prefer honesty – truth in advertising. It is what it is. Let’s deal with it.

What is truly astonishing – even eerie – are the similarities between the intramural war over women’s ordination currently on the agenda and the battles over mechitza that were waged a century and then a half-century ago. It is no coincidence that the point of controversy is exactly the same: egalitarianism. It is the contention that men and women are absolutely equal and identical, and any distinctions made by law or custom must be discarded or amended to comply with a modern and progressive world.

Consider: The abolition of mechitza won support because their advocates asserted the need for “religious equality.” The Mechitza was viciously attacked in America by a Reform rabbi who claimed that putting women in a “cage” was an affront to religious equality. There was no reason for Jewish law to treat men and women differently, he opined. The year was 1855. Even he – David Einhorn – did not contemplate a female clergy and it would take another century before the Reform movement was willing to make that leap, also on grounds of religious equality. The same holds true for the ordination of women. It is all about equality.

Consider:  The abolition of mechitza was supported by some genuine talmidei chachamim, some of whom wrote learned treatises purporting to explain how the presence of a mechitza, while preferred, is not imperative. The same holds true for the ordination of women, except for the irony that there are more sources in halachic literature that preclude women rabbis than there are that mandate a mechitza in a shul, which, in fact, is not even mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch. There were proponents of mixed seating, but their view did not prevail over time as it was a minority and unpersuasive view. No one thought to say “eilu v’eilu.”

Consider: Many wonderful Orthodox rabbis served for decades in congregations without mechitzot, and other great – even legendary – rabbis took down their mechitzot for the Yamim Noraim in order to accommodate the larger crowds in attendance. So, too, there are a few well-known rabbis who have become the advocates for female clergy. Regarding mechitza, some of those older rabbis made their peace with it, and many never did, knew what they were doing was wrong and always longed for the day when mechitzot would again grace their shuls. Why did they allow it?

Consider: The prevailing argument was that the egalitarianism of American society would never tolerate the separate seating of men and women, and it was underscored that women would widely abandon Torah Judaism and stop coming to shul if forced to sit in the aforementioned “cages.” The removal of mechitza was therefore intended to stem the tide of the alleged defection of pious women from Orthodoxy, what we would call today a kiruv move. The exact same reasoning is applied here today – the expressed fear that if women are not ordained they will take their talents to the non-Orthodox movements and the Torah world will suffer a grievous loss. That argument either depreciates the Torah commitment of the modern woman or it is positing that the target audience is influenced more by feminism than it is by the Mesorah.

Consider: There are voices proclaiming that female clergy is by now entrenched in Jewish life because there are a dozen or so ordainees, and the Torah world – even the Modern Orthodox Torah world – has to accept that reality. But in the early 1960’s, there were more than 250 shuls without mechitzot that were members of the Orthodox Union, the OU. More than a half-century later, there is (I think) but one OU shul without a mechitza (a shul “grandfathered” in, literally; “if mixed seating was good enough for my pious grandfather, it’s good enough for me”). Every new shul that applies to the OU must have a mechitza. In the early 1960’s, there were dozens of members of the Rabbinical Council of America, the RCA, who served in shuls with mixed seating. Today there are, to my knowledge, none. (I assume there must be one or two, I just don’t know of any.) Indeed, employment in a mixed seating synagogue is a barrier to membership in the RCA. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, even RIETS dispatched its musmachim – willingly or unwillingly, above the table or beneath the table – to shuls without mechitzot, if only, technically, for brief periods of time. Today, I bet not.

In effect, this breach of Torah norms – the lack of mechitza – was effectively reversed within several decades. For example, some of those OU shuls put in mechitzot and some became members of the now-fading Conservative movement – but at least clarity was obtained and amita shel Torah preserved. It required a change in Jewish culture, a greater assertiveness and self-confidence on the part of Orthodoxy, and a recognition – undoubtedly driven in large part by the Young Israel movement and the more right-wing Torah world that burgeoned after the Holocaust – that we can adhere to Torah norms even in the face of a hostile dominant culture and even if the values of the “modern” world cause a measure of discomfort and dissonance to faithful Torah Jews. So be it. The no-mechitza culture was reversed also because, well, it didn’t work, and too many Jews who rightly perceived it as a compromise with Jewish law continued to compromise themselves completely out of Torah observance.

The same battle is underway today. The ordination of women – so obviously forbidden but deemed necessary because of modernity, egalitarianism, kiruv, compassion, or pressure – is the mechitza of our generation. The traditional Torah world – what we call the “right-wing” world – need not join the battle, except to lend its pressure from the outside, because they do not even hear the clamor. It is the Modern Orthodox world – Torah Jews in a Western milieu – that has to preserve its honor and its fidelity to halacha through a protracted, visible, public and explicit defense of the Mesorah.

That means that the same institutions that waged the battle fifty years ago must redouble their efforts and ensure that this generation of Jews remains committed to Torah. It means that the OU has to clarify to its constituent shuls that hiring women with “ordination” crosses a red line – the equivalent of tearing down the mechitza. It means that the RCA has to firmly and unambiguously renounce the notion of female clergy, and distance itself in one way or another from members who have brazenly breached these norms in their eagerness to expand the role of women in Jewish life or their devotion to Western values – and their conflation with Torah values. It means that the Roshei Yeshiva in RIETS have to impress upon the public and their disciples the gravity of the violation of Torah implicit in the institution of female ordination.

It also means that, sadly but invariably, those groups or individuals that continue to promote the legitimacy of female clergy will have excluded themselves from the Orthodox world, like their predecessors did – some of whom were also very fine people – who were passionate proponents of mixed seating.

This is not the place to discuss appropriate roles for women, something that has already been addressed at length in this forum. The issue here is focused: will the Orthodox rabbinate and lay leadership respond quickly, appropriately and forcefully to the mechitza controversy of our day, or will it wait a long fifty years – like they did with the mechitza issue itself – before regrouping and reasserting the supremacy of Torah over Western values?

If they choose silence – or silent protest, which is tantamount to passive acquiescence – then they will have validated the right-wing Orthodox world’s traditional ambivalence, even iciness, towards Modern Orthodoxy. But if they choose to act, in concert and with the full weight of Torah authority, Mesorah and myriads of ModOs alongside them, they will delineate the appropriate boundaries for the Jew in the Western world and preserve the Torah for generations to come.

My guess is that they – we – will enter the fray, clarify what is acceptable and unacceptable, and join our generation’s battle for Torah, the honor of men and women, and the perpetuation of the Modern Orthodox ideal. Already the major organizations referenced above have a consensus approaching near unanimity that female ordination is an unacceptable breach of the Mesorah and places its proponents outside the Orthodox world. I trust that the coming struggle will respect all personalities but will focus on this critical battle of ideas – ideas that will determine the course of Torah for generations to come.