Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

The Rebbe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping Down

After seven years as head of the Bet Din L’Giyur (the conversion court) in Bergen County, under the auspices of the Beth Din of America and the Gerus Protocol and Standards (GPS) adopted by the RCA in 2007, I have decided to resign from the Bet Din. I sent this missive to my supervisors:

“After much deliberation, I have decided to resign as Rosh Bet Din of the RCBC and step down from the Bet Din itself, effective immediately.

    It has been spiritually rewarding to serve in this capacity for the last seven years. I am extremely proud of the professionalism, sensitivity, integrity and fidelity to Halacha of the RCBC Bet Din that I and my colleagues established, and that successfully brought more than 100 gerei Tzedek tachat kanfei hashechina.

     In the current climate, with changes to GPS protocols contemplated, it is an appropriate time for new leadership.

    I wish you all continued hatzlacha.”

In the current cynical climate, I must append the following. Lest anyone gets the wrong impression, and at the risk of sounding silly and self-serving, suffice it to say that I am not resigning because of any scandal. There is no scandal, there was no scandal and (I hope!) there will be no scandal. There is no voyeurism, no embezzlement, no tomfoolery, no abuse, no drug use, no illegal gun possession, no pending arrest, no past arrest, no insensitivity or meanness of spirit, no unpaid parking tickets, and nothing untoward of any kind. It shouldn’t have to be said – no one is perfect, of course – but I try to lead a respectable life.

So why resign, especially as our Bet Din has been held to be a model of professionalism, efficiency, and faithfulness to Torah and derech eretz?

Well, it was and is. We adhered scrupulously to the protocols that were established, and I even served on the committee that established the standards that were then approved by the RCA Executive Committee. We never met any candidate (male or female) alone; indeed, I never did anything alone but always with at least two other colleagues. What happened in DC is simply unthinkable in our context: none of us had a key to the mikveh, we were always there with other women when a female convert was there. It never even dawned on us to meet a convert privately, put them to work in an office, charge them money for our services, meet them outside a formal session of Bet Din, and establish a social or financial relationship with them. Unthinkable – as were the other allegations pending in DC.

We always tried to treat each convert with the utmost sensitivity, sincerity and compassion. For sure, not every candidate became a convert. It is not easy to turn someone away, but fortunately, most of those who ultimately did not convert dropped out themselves. And that is quite understandable. It takes an enormous commitment – a transformation of one’s life – to become a religious Jew. They simply saw that it was not for them, or, on some occasions when there was (or was to be) a Jewish spouse, the Jewish spouse could not commit to living a Torah life.

Most converts – especially those who wish to marry a Jew – tend to exaggerate their readiness for conversion. (Only about 15% of our candidates were non-Jews in a relationship with a Jew.) Most of the other adults were simply non-Jews turned on to Torah. Occasionally they too would try to hasten the process but once they became aware of the breadth of knowledge required by a convert, they would accede. Many said, in one form or another, “I want to get this right. I want to be ready.”

That is what made the moment of giyur so special, so inspiring and so memorable. There were not a few times when the candidate (especially a woman) came to receive her name and our blessing after the immersion, and broke down in tears. Tears of joy and thanksgiving, not tears of abuse and maltreatment. I would share only with my colleagues letters, cards (some people actually put pen to paper) and emails of gratitude from many of our converts for the process, the way they were treated, for the immense spiritual pleasure they now enjoy. Those notes would be a welcome contrast to the open season against rabbis now in full force. I would share them, even anonymously, but for their self-serving nature.

So why resign?

The GPS system that has worked so well for us is about to change. No matter that the system worked quite well, making the conversion process difficult but eminently attainable to the committed, protecting rabbis against abuse by a powerful layman (“Convert my future daughter-in-law or you’ll be out of a job!”), and standardizing the requirements for conversion. The latter is the most important consideration, because conversion is not a rabbinical contrivance to decrease the intermarriage rate or facilitate marriages but it is an entrée into the Jewish nation, G-d’s chosen people. It is not a personal, private act of the converter and the convert, but a formal and heartfelt welcome to the Jewish people. It is an act with profound consequences for our nation, and for the convert who now shares our destiny and fate.

We have our rules for citizenship like any nation does, and ours requires, first and foremost, Kabbalat hamitzvot (acceptance of the commandments). Living a full Jewish life requires study, and the policy was always that, aside from rare cases that required special consideration, the minimum period of study was one year. This immediately deflected pressure on the rabbi to perform a quickie conversion. The candidate was tested, informally but regularly, and was expected to be an observant Jew before immersion, the final stage. That always was a sticking point – in the past not every rabbi insisted on a full acceptance of mitzvot, preferring to turn a blind eye or deaf ear. Most candidates accepted the one-year period (the US requires a five-year residency requirement for citizenship!) and most understood that it was because conversion was a momentous act. One recent candidate explained that she first went to a non-Orthodox conversion school, and realized there were no expectations for her at all. Finish the class, and you’re in the club. She intuitively knew that could not be right, and came to our Bet Din.

Beyond that, candidates were always told that the pace of conversion was up to them, and it depended on two factors: knowledge and commitment. The more they grew in knowledge and the deeper in commitment, the closer they were to conversion. It was and is a reasonable approach.

On the other hand, once or twice candidates came and said that they are getting married in six weeks, and one party needed to convert. They were not observant, did not wish to be, and they were not accommodated. The serious among them, of course, postponed their weddings, waited, went through the system, and established Torah homes. Beautiful. As it should be.

The GPS system did not fail in DC; a person failed. That person allegedly breached every norm in our protocols. There is an impulse – quite common on one side of the political divide in America – that if someone breaks the law, what is needed is a restatement of the law, or another law. But if laws stopped criminals, there would be no criminals. We have plenty of laws.

The GPS system has always had its detractors, inside and outside the RCA, and those detractors are exploiting this crisis to change the system. (Those who have obsessively focused on the Rabbanut angle always missed the point, and Israel is now dealing with its own conversion crisis with issues regarding standards that are not dissimilar to ours.) Thus, the RCA has just appointed a committee “that will review its current Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses.” The committee consists of six men and five women, bolstering the trend on the Orthodox left to create quasi-rabbinical functions for women. Is there a role for women to play in “suggest[ing] safeguards against possible abuse”? Probably, although it really is self-understood. But what role can they play in “review[ing]” the GPS conversion process? That is halacha, minhag, psak – a purely rabbinical role.

There are members of the committee who have never liked the GPS guidelines, and do not follow them. There are very few members of the committee who were part of the original committee, which entirely consisted of Rabbis. Of course, they will have to water down the standards – they’ll call it a “revision” and an “improvement” – but I fear we will not be far from the old days of quickie conversions with little true commitment. That, by the way, still happens, and a few RCA rabbis acting outside the GPS system still perform those.

I will be delighted to be proven wrong. But I don’t think I will be, and therefore it is time to get out. I do not wish to be coerced to apply standards and guidelines that, to my thinking, may not comport with the requirements of Torah, and the makeup of the committee will almost ensure that outcome, however it is presented.

Much of the impetus for these changes is media-driven, as the RCA is trying to overcome the bad publicity of the DC scandal. I, for one, refused to be tarred with that brush. Let one person stand trial for his crimes. Jews have always opposed the notion of collective guilt. Why does every Bet Din in the country have to change their successful practices just because one person in one Bet Din allegedly violated every guideline in our handbook?

Additionally, it would be far better for the RCA leadership now to focus on its own potential mishandling of this matter, as the media has highlighted. I serve on the RCA’s Executive Committee but know almost nothing about the inner workings or decision-making of the RCA. Questions have been raised – in the media, especially – as to what did they know, when did they know it, whom did they inform and what did they do about it? I have implicit trust in my colleagues but those questions deserve answers.

Thus, I have no interest in serving in a system in which I have no input in the policies of that system, am not consulted on them, and might not agree with them. Why resign in a huff after the policies and changes are announced?! Be not a martyr after the fact, but a ro’eh et hanolad – anticipate what will happen. That is what I have done.

There is a second reason as well. Earlier I described the sheer majesty of the moment of conversion –the birth of a Jewish soul. For me and I’m sure my colleagues, that made all our efforts worthwhile – all the time we invested on a volunteer basis (we never earned a nickel from conversions), the nights and weekends that were devoted to helping people realize their spiritual dreams.

Now, the recent, voluminous and tendentious writings on conversion, the media testimonies of converts and the agenda of feminists would have us believe that conversion is all about sex, power and money. It is about evil men looking to dominate women and lusting after lucre. That is a vulgar distortion of reality. They have taken a sublime and pure moment and made it prurient and ugly. For sure, I blame my DC colleague for this situation, but also those who have exaggerated the problem and impute guilt and suspicion to every rabbi and Bet Din.

It needs to be said that the most uncomfortable situation I encountered in gerut was not the woman in the mikveh; she is concealed such that only the top of her head was visible. My most uncomfortable moments were when an adult male had to lie on a table with his private parts exposed so the Bet Din could witness the hatafat dam brit (a quasi-circumcision). And yet, no man – not a single one – ever complained about the process because each knew that it was a small price he had to pay (a requirement) for membership in an eternal people. A little perspective is in order. Not everything in life has to be vulgarized.

It is as if every rabbi is now a suspect, every rabbi needs a chaperone, and no rabbi can be trusted.

I have no interest in living as a suspect. I refuse to have my integrity and character impugned, nor to be defined in the public eye because of one miscreant.

Note that I have no illusions that this is some major moment in my life or anyone else’s. There is no earth-shattering news here. The heavens will not shed tears. I subscribe to de Gaulle’s adage that “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” I too will be replaced. Don’t cry for me, Evita Peron.

But we are living in a toxic environment for rabbis (generally; not locally where I live, thank G-d). The distrust is embarrassing and unbecoming. If I cannot be trusted to behave like a normal, decent human being, then I am unworthy of serving on a Bet Din. Let someone else do it. If people wish to presume that rabbis are corrupt and suspect, so in the words of our Sages (Masechet Sanhedrin 37b), “Mah lanu v’la’tzara ha’zot?” – that is to say, why do we need this headache?

Frankly, I am hard-pressed to understand why any non-Jew would convert to a religion whose spiritual leaders are so distrusted.

There is much to do, much that needs to be done, in the world of Torah and for the Jewish people. My days are full, thank G-d. I’m lucky to be able to make a contribution in other ways, foremost in the kehilla where I am privileged to serve, and look forward to doing so.

I leave conversion to others – others that I know serve the Jewish people with great devotion, distinction and honor, and do deserve the trust of those they serve.

   (P.S. I was just sent the NY Jewish Week’s article on this matter. Typically, it got almost every fact wrong. [Even the picture is 15 years old, but I thank them for publishing that.] I don’t consider myself Modern Orthodox; I see myself as part of every camp of faithful Jews and try to learn from all of them. I didn’t step down at all from the Beth Din of America, but just from the Beit Din of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. And I didn’t step down because a committee was formed including women. This decision was made before I knew the makeup of the committee. There are any number of rabbis whose participation would be equally unsettling.

   The main reason is, as I elaborated: the negativity associated today with conversion, and the cynicism and distrust fostered by so many (including the Jewish Week) towards the rabbinate. That has nothing to do with women.

Don’t expect a clarification.)    -RSP 

Update: They clarified, and naturally made it worse. They corrected the text to read that I resigned from the RCBC Beit Din, not the Beit Din of America, but under the wonderful old picture that I am delighted they used, the error remains. Sheer incompetence.

They took out the Modern Orthodox label, and in the text called me a “high-ranking officer of the RCA.” I am not an officer at all, much less a high-ranking one. Does anyone do fact-checking there?

Chronologically they were correct that my decision “followed” the decision to include women on the committee, and my intentions were already known last week (before I knew who was on the committee), so much so that I was contacted and asked not to resign. So they still missed the gist of my argument, which I assume they stopped reading half-way through (once they found they could string together enough phrases to fit their narrative).

I haven’t talked to the NY Jewish Week in more than 15 years. And this is why. They are typical of the sordid state of journalism today. (I know, I know, never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.)

But then the “updated” version contained this doozy: “Pruzansky is still a member of the RCA’s Executive Committee, where he used to share the company of Rabbi Freundel before his arrest.” Huh!!   How is that for vicious innuendo?  “Share the company of…?  I join the meetings almost always by conference call. To that extent, every officer and every Executive Committee member “shared” the same “company.” What in the world is the point of that – except to plant the seed that somehow I am connected to the alleged malfeasance in DC? What a despicable outrageous slander!

They should retract and apologize. It is elementary decency.

And they wonder why I don’t return their phone calls. Simply despicable. And typical from one of the leading publications in the world of Orthodox-bashing and rabbi-bashing.

-RSP

The Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystery of the Shofar

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

And Ktiva vachatima tova to all!    – RSP)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shana Tova to all!

 

Jews and Guns

Press Release:

A dozen rabbis from across the country have joined with the Golani Rifle & Pistol Club to oppose recent calls for greater gun control by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Orthodox Union (OU). On August 13, the RCA issued a press release, “2014 Resolution: Gun Violence in America,” promoting arbitrary gun control measures. The RCA’s resolution endorsed the OU’s similar press release, “OU Supports Federal Legislation to Prevent Gun Violence.” Rejecting the position of the RCA and OU, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Rabbi David Bendory, and ten other rabbis, together with the members of the Golani Club, a Jewish shooting organization based in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, affirm the importance of armed self-defense by Jews and all Americans. “The RCA’s statement, like that of the OU, is rife with platitudes, ignores basic facts, and fails to recognize Judaism’s strong support for the value and practice of armed self-defense,” the joint statement reads. “The RCA and OU should promote legislation that offers law-abiding citizens full protection of their right to self-defense, both inside and outside the home, especially in the most restrictive states, which contain large Jewish population centers. All Jews, like all Americans, should be able to exercise, in a sober and prudent manner, their fundamental right and halachic obligation to defend themselves, their families, and communities, whenever the need arises.”
The full text of the joint statement is below:
JOINT STATEMENT

BY THE GOLANI RIFLE & PISTOL CLUB, RABBI STEVEN PRUZANSKY, RABBI DAVID BENDORY,
AND OTHER RABBIS IN SUPPORT OF JEWISH LAW, JEWISH LIFE, AND JEWISH SELF-DEFENSE
September 15, 2014.

We the undersigned declare our support for Jewish Law, Jewish life, and Jewish self-defense, and therefore our opposition to the recent, bewildering statement by the Rabbinical Council of America (“RCA”) that promotes arbitrary gun control measures (see “2014 Resolution: Gun Violence in America, issued August 13, 2014, at http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=105804) and explicitly endorses a similar statement by the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America (“OU”) (see “OU Supports Federal Legislation to Prevent Gun Violence,” issued April 9, 2013, athttp://www.ou.org/news/ou_supports_federal_legislation_to_prevent_gun_violence/).

The RCA’s statement, like that of the OU, is rife with platitudes, ignores basic facts, and fails to recognize Judaism’s strong support for the value and practice of armed self-defense. Although the RCA reluctantly condones legal gun ownership, their statement evinces an overall hostility to gun possession and self-defense, and completely fails to address the limitations on the self-defense rights of the law-abiding public, who live under threat from violent criminals (including Jew-haters). When a premier rabbinical body of modern orthodoxy takes a public position on an issue as critical to the Jewish people as gun regulation, it is incumbent on them first to contemplate all relevant considerations, not least of which is the well-publicized and increasing violence against Jews worldwide. This the RCA and OU have failed to do.

In response, we present below many of the reasons why these two organizations should reconsider their prior positions, and instead encourage Jews to remain ready, vigilant, and armed. The RCA and OU should promote legislation that offers law-abiding citizens full protection of their right to self-defense, both inside and outside the home, especially in the most restrictive states, which contain large Jewish population centers. All Jews, like all Americans, should be able to exercise, in a sober and prudent manner, their fundamental right and halachic obligation to defend themselves, their families, and communities, whenever the need arises.
* * * * * *
• There are already strict measures in place to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. The RCA’s and OU’s support for “restricting American citizens’ easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunitions” does not take into account the regulations that already exist nationwide, including exceptionally stringent regulations in the tri-state area around New York City that effectively ban carrying guns outside the home and subject peaceful citizens to prosecution merely for being ready to defend themselves. Access to firearms by violent criminals is already illegal, and access by the mentally ill is already restricted. It is grossly misleading to suggest that the current, complex legal regime at the federal, state, and local levels does not exist. Furthermore, the RCA and OU fail to explain why imposing additional draconian restrictions and penalties on peaceful citizens will stop criminals from obtaining guns. In fact, adding to the burdens on the law-abiding will only render them more helpless if they are assaulted – especially in places (such as synagogues) which are likely targets of nefarious people who disobey the law and commit their crimes while heavily armed. The approach taken by the RCA and OU leave their Jewish constituents virtually defenseless in the face of deadly threats.

• To stop crime, stop criminals. Everyone recognizes that a tool is not responsible for the action of the person who holds it. For instance, we do not speak of the annual murders committed with baseball bats as “bat violence.” Yet we are told that guns, unlike any other tools, actually cause crime. The real causes of crime, of course, are more complex and more difficult to address. It is much easier to talk about guns than to consider issues like family breakdown and educational decline. But focusing on guns is no more effective than focusing on any other implement used by criminals. We might as well try to regulate criminals’ shoes, gloves, masks, or cars.

• Gun control has proven ineffective at stopping crime. The RCA and OU have ignored many key facts, among which are the following:
1) Violent crime, including crime involving guns, has been declining steadily over the last two decades, at the same time as the majority of states have been lifting restrictions on the right to self-defense;
2) Spree shootings in schools or on government property are very rare events, representing a tiny fraction of annual homicides;
3) Such shootings have most often occurred in locations that have been declared officially “gun free,” which gives notice to criminals that they will be able to commit their crimes without immediate challenge;
4) The vast majority of gun homicides are committed by a relatively small population of hardened, recidivist criminals who are not deterred by laws restricting gun purchases;
5) The rates of violent crime tend to be higher in areas with the most restrictive gun laws.

• Gun owners stop criminals and save lives every day. The RCA and OU fail to recognize that ordinary citizens use guns to protect themselves and others every single day. Across the country, mothers, fathers, and even children successfully protect their families against home invaders and carjackers. Women protect themselves against rapists. Business owners and store clerks protect themselves against armed robbers. Whether by brandishing a gun, pointing it, or shooting it, gun owners are able to fend off criminals and, often, to hold them until police arrive, saving not only their own lives but the lives of future victims. While many of these incidents go unreported (and somehow none of them ever seem to make the pages of the New York Times), they happen nonetheless. For a small selection of relevant news stories, the RCA and OU might consult the Guns Save Livesblog at http://www.gunssavelives.net. For further relevant facts and analysis, they might examine the “Facts about Guns” section of The Truth About Guns blog at http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/gun-facts/.

• Peaceful gun ownership promotes equality. The statements by the RCA and OU do not consider the inevitable and unequal consequences of disarmament. Guns are “equalizers.” They empower citizens of any size or capability to withstand attack from vicious criminals. To deny this tool to peaceful citizens is to put them at the mercy of those who are stronger or more numerous. And those who are physically weakest will be most vulnerable. We prefer to read stories about grandmothers who made burglars turn tail and flee, teenagers who drove off home invaders, and wheelchair-bound men who stopped robbers, rather than obituaries about their unjust demise.

• Jewish history supports self-defense. It is remarkable that the RCA and OU have ignored the long Jewish history of persecution. The Jewish people have been murdered and persecuted in nearly every era and place on the globe. From the Crusades to the Chmielnicki massacres to the Holocaust, we have lost millions of lives to those who took advantage of our inability to defend ourselves. Even now – in this season, this week, indeed, this very day – we are being attacked in Europe and in Israel by enemies who without shame call in public for our deaths. Nor are we completely safe in the U.S., where terrorists have conspired against synagogues and individual Jews have been attacked. It should be clear that the threats against Jews in the U.S. and abroad are serious and increasing. It should be just as clear to the RCA and OU that further limiting our ability to defend ourselves at such a time is the very last thing Jewish leaders should be demanding.

• Self-defense does not equate to vigilantism. It is important to note in passing that, contrary to what is commonly alleged, possessing the tools and obtaining the training to defend oneself does not turn one into a vigilante. Many thousands of Jews are already gun owners, and yet they have not engaged in any rash of crimes. Jews as a people understand all too well how precious life is and how important it is to preserve it. However, we cannot and must not ignore the maxim of Chazal: “Haba lehargecha hashkem lehargo.” (“If one comes to kill you, kill him first.”)

• We have a duty of self-defense under Jewish Law. Our mitzvot oblige us to preserve and defend Jewish lives. This obligation is all the more important while we are in Exile and therefore at greater risk. Rendering Jews less capable of self-defense and more dependent upon others runs counter to our halachic duty, endangers all Jewry and emboldens our enemies. (Also, others are more likely to help defend us if we show that we are willing to defend ourselves.)

• The Torah praises self-defense. The Torah recognizes armed self-defense as a requirement for a free people. As Exodus 13:18 states, “The children of Israel went up out of Egypt armed.” The Israelites were no longer slaves; they were armed. Indeed, from its early chapters, the Torah teaches that readiness for armed conflict is a moral duty and necessary for Jewish survival. When Lot was kidnapped, Avraham led 318 armed men to battle in order to save him. The Torah does not say that the men had to train for battle; they were already trained. Jewry today should likewise engage in training and stand ready to defend themselves.

• The Tanach praises self-defense. The Tanach is replete with accounts of the heroic wars of Israel, from Joshua to Gideon, from David to Josiah. As in the instance of Avraham above, the Jews were able to fight because they were armed and trained. None of these leaders would have been able to go into battle if the Jews had not already readied themselves.

• Channukah celebrates self-defense. Every year on Channukah, Jews celebrate and praise the Maccabees for their armed defense of the Torah and Jewish life. Should Jews today not emulate the Maccabees’ bravery and skill?
* * * * * *
Like the RCA, we look forward to a day of universal peace, when “the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the L-rd from Jerusalem,” when G-d “will judge between the nations,” and weapons will no longer be required to defend ourselves against our enemies. But we pray for such a future with open eyes, conscious of centuries of Jewish helplessness and of the growing number of attacks on Jews today. The assumption that an era of peace and brotherhood will dawn if we disarm ourselves, limit our access to firearms, or vitiate our right of self-defense, has no support in Jewish history, the teachings of the Torah, or present reality. Plowshares and pruning hooks will not defend Jews against enemies equipped with swords, spears, and deadlier weapons. Pretending otherwise will only undermine the preservation of the Jewish people – and the security of all Americans.

Signed By:

Rabbi Sol Appleman (Syosset, NY)
Rabbi David Bendory (Livingston, NJ)
Rabbi Mordechai Cohen (Milwaukee, WI)
Rabbi Dov Fischer (Irvine, CA)
Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz (Chicago, IL)
Rabbi Reuven Mann (Phoenix, AZ)
Rabbi Gary Moskowitz (Queens, NY)
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky (Teaneck, NJ)
Rabbi Mordechai Scher (Santa Fe, NM)
Rabbi Jay Shoulson (Long Island City, NY)
Rabbi Ephraim Simon (Teaneck, NJ)
Rabbi Ephraim Slepoy (Passaic, NJ)
The Golani Rifle & Pistol Club (NJ & PA)

On Marriage

The Talmud (Masechet Taanit 30b) states that the Fifteenth of Av (today) is one of the most joyous days of the year, one of two days on which young maidens would frolic in the vineyards in hopes of attracting a spouse. It is especially romantic day in Israel, notwithstanding that the frolicking in the vineyards is passe, and thus an appropriate time to look at the current state and foundation of marriage.

Marriage is a fundamental institution in humanity, despite the zeitgeist, and especially cherished in Judaism. It is perhaps the most important determinant of a person’s happiness in life, if appreciated and approached properly. There is no joy like the joy of a good marriage, and no misery like the misery of a bad marriage. It is therefore also a very personal institution; what works for one couple or person might not work for another. That is what makes it so unique and precious, and why its inner dynamics are off limits to others (except when they seek out assistance). Miriam was punished because she misconstrued her brother Moshe’s essence and the nature of his prophecy, but perhaps also because she intruded on one of the holy of holies of Jewish life, the privacy of marriage.

The Midrash (Eicha Rabba 3:9) cites the verse “it is good for a man to bear the burden (yoke) in his youth” (Eicha 3:27), and applies it to the three yokes in particular. “A person should carry the yoke of Torah, a wife, and a job when young.” We would not necessarily have put all three together. Certainly there are those who demarcate learning Torah from working and even learning from marrying. Others struggle with the balance between career and family, and exaggerate the time and effort needed to earn a living and shortchange their families in the process. Still others – it is quite common in the world at large – delay embarking on any of the two secular quests (career or spouse) until they have left their youth behind. But Chazal were quite clear: it is good for man, when still young, to bear these burdens. But how is that possible, and especially how are the three considered “burdens?”

The Torah Temima  maintains that all three naturally converge. An ol, in the context of the Midrash, is not a yoke such as weighs down an animal, but rather a responsibility. To feel no ol in life is to have no responsibilities in life, a plight that is attractive to the slacker but inevitably leads to boredom and sin. To have olot means that a person has everything in life – Torah because that is our foundation, a wife so that we can live in purity and overcome our innate narcissism, and a job because without work and self-sufficiency even the Torah will be lost, as in “all Torah not accompanied by work will eventually be nullified” (Avot 2:2). And to do it all “when young” is to maximize the best of the world for the greatest amount of time. It is good to start young. But what exactly is the ol? Is there nonetheless an element of difficulty or of hardship involved?

     The ol of Torah is understandable. Torah study takes time, effort, and diligence. So too the burden of work, which also takes time studying, or planning a career, and then one has to show up every day at a job. But what is the ol of a wife??? Indeed, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, one of the great Musarists of our generation, would urge bridegrooms to recite under the chupa (to themselves!) “behold I accept upon myself the yoke of this woman.” What yoke?

Rav Wolbe explained that it means that a man accepts upon himself at that sublime moment to always relate to his wife with patience, to never become angry or abrupt, to never take her for granted, to assume responsibility for her happiness, to embrace what the Talmud (Masechet Yevamot 62b) imposes on a man – to love his wife as much as he loves himself and to respect her more than he respects himself.  He undertakes never to make her cry or unhappy.

That is quite a commitment, but nothing less is expected of the Jewish husband. It is a serious obligation – and with it all people get married, and still for the best of reasons: because they have shared values and shared goals, and wish to build a life and a family together. That notion is uniform for all, but the details vary from couple to couple.

And that is why each couple is provided with a zone of privacy that enables them to thrive, to build their special home and make their unique contribution to the Jewish people.

 

A Strong Nation

The Jewish people, too familiar with mourning the murder of our innocents, has again been plunged into national grief over the unsurprising discovery that the three teenagers kidnapped more than two weeks ago were murdered in cold blood shortly after they were seized. Once again, faithful practitioners of the “religion of peace” have trampled on the flower of Jewish youth and, as has happened across the globe, become celebrities within their large circle of co-religionists. As PM Netanyahu said today at the funeral, “we sanctify life while they sanctify death.” If there are Muslims with a conscience and sense of decency, their voices are drowned out – or perhaps they too have been smothered – by the evil wind that blows through their faith.

Reactions, for the most part, have been predictable. President Obama, whose name apparently begins not with an “O” but with a zero, waited weeks to react and then offered a generic denunciation even though one of the murdered youth was an American citizen. Other administration entities decried the “cycle of violence” and pleaded for “restraint on both sides,” as if there is some moral equivalence between the murderer and the victim, or between the murderer and the victim who wishes to defend himself against future homicides. That moral obscenity stains the American government, and those Europeans who embrace that notion as well. The people of Israel are truly a “nation that dwells alone.”

We are also an inherently decent people that has never fully developed the tools to deal with absolute evil. And so as Israel’s government struggles for a response, it has unfortunately fallen into one of its bad habits – that of distinguishing between the “good enemies” and the “bad enemies.” Hamas serves the desirable purpose of being the bogeyman of choice, a convenient (and deserved) target. But Hamas is largely supported by a society. Hamas is not operating in defiance of their national consensus but in furtherance of it. The Palestinian Authority, a terrorist entity propped up by Israel so – for unclear reasons – there should be a “partner” with whom to negotiate Israel’s gradual surrender, or at least maintain the illusion that there is a diplomatic solution, is as guilty as Hamas. After all, it is the PA that has tried to rehabilitate Hamas by bringing them into the government through their unity agreement. It is the PA that pays terrorists and their families a salary (partly with American money) which rewards, encourages and incentivizes the murder of innocents.  The Arabs who dwell in the land of Israel are a pathologically sick society in which mothers rejoice over the homicidal and suicidal madness of their children. It is not human.

Conversely, the faith of the people of Israel has been profoundly moving. The grieving families are symbols, because Jews rightly sense it could have been anyone. The three boys – Eyal Yifrah, Gil-ad Sha’er and Naftali Fraenkel hy”d– are everyone’s sons, a point underscored by their burial together in the city of Modiin which is roughly equidistant from their three homes. Although the entire nation mourns, we can’t escape the fact that the three precious families bear the bulk of the grief and the loss affects them the most. And yet, their grace under pressure has been consistent, and their messages affecting and pointed. Uri Yifrach, father of the slain Eyal, eulogized his son by saying that “We cry not because we are afraid but because we are human. We have hearts of flesh. We have love and love will triumph.”

And their faith, their strength, has been astonishing and inspirational, even through the pain. Few will forget Rachel Fraenkel’s message sent especially to young people  that “G-d is not our employee.” We can pray, make requests, and storm the heavens but G-d has His own calculations to which we are not privy. It is especially heartrending to realize that all the prayers for their safe return occurred after they were already murdered. Many have understandably questioned G-d’s role and justice. Perhaps we should first look closer to home.

G-d’s Torah is quite clear that hostile elements must be removed from the land of Israel, or “they will be pins in your eyes and a thorn in your side” (Bamidbar 33:55). G-d’s Torah is quite clear that murderers are to be executed, so that there is atonement for the spilled blood and atonement for the land in which the blood was shed (ibid 35:33-34). We are admonished several times “to burn the evil from your midst.”

When the government of Israel serially negotiates with terrorists, gives terrorists a territorial stronghold in the land of Israel, provides terrorists with weapons, arrests terrorists and then coddles them in prisons with color TVs and advanced academic study, supplies a terrorist society with its water and electricity, captures terrorists and then releases them back into a society which welcomes them like heroes, and makes terrorism a worthwhile, even lucrative, career choice, then perhaps the problem is not G-d but man, and not just any man but those men and women who have propounded and implemented such policies, and of course never been held accountable for them.

That the Jewish people unify in times of tragedy is as welcome as it is typical, as typical as are the calls that such unity should carry over when the immediacy of the tragedy fades. We can hope, but as always, this unity also won’t carry over. People’s political positions are usually hardened by tragedy rather than transformed by it. The monstrous evil of our enemies confirms our world view, whatever it is. The kidnapping and murder by Arabs (never caught, by the way) of two other teenagers, Koby Mandell and Yosef Ish-ran in May 2001, changed no minds. The televised and gruesome lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Shchem in October 2000 shocked and horrified Israelis but ultimately changed no minds. (One of the lynchers was released in the Shalit exchange.)  There are many other such incidents, too macabre to mention. I fear it will be the same here and I have no reason to assume it will not be the same.

Those who see no use for negotiations and no hope for peace are justly bolstered by the recognition that Jews are surrounded by a barbarian society that has spawned such beasts with two legs that murder children and then celebrate their accomplishments. On the other hand, peaceniks are even more emboldened to pronounce elements of that evil entity – the “good enemies” – as true partners for peace and rush even more headlong into oblivion. After all, nothing can stop a “process;” it just goes on and on.

Yet, two events give me hope that something has changed and can make a profound imprint on Israeli society. For all our flaws, it turned out that the default position of Jews is faith and prayer, no matter how estranged from tradition some people seem on the surface. It was natural, and moving, to see secular Israelis don kippot, pray in public, recite tehillim and join all of Israel in beseeching G-d’s compassion. They may not pray tomorrow but they will surely remember that during a crisis they, like all Jews, reached out to G-d in prayer. They will remember that this heinous act served as a catalyst to reinforce their Jewish identity, not just their Israeli one. That can only have an ennobling effect, even if we soon return to the political shenanigans of old.

And, even if we didn’t need the reminder, it was rewarding to feel (here and in Israel) the overpowering sense of family that is the Jewish people. We all hoped and prayed together, as we all mourn and grieve together. Everyone in whom a Jewish heart beats feels the loss intensely. In the rest of the world people are preoccupied with soccer and in the United States with Obama’s endless scandals and missteps. All of that pales before the Jewish people – the family of Yaakov – coming together, overcome by the brutal and senseless murders of three of our children.

It was moving to see Yair Lapid state at one funeral yesterday that “behold I accept upon myself the positive commandment of ‘And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Notwithstanding that we all accepted that commandment (and 612 others) at Sinai some time ago, it was poignant. Whether or not it carries over, and perhaps it will, it perfectly captured the spirit of the moment that gripped an entire nation, one family.

The day of reckoning is to come. Terror cannot be defeated because it is rooted in a depraved ideology that will endure, but it can be deterred by inflicting such pain on their society that the murderers are restrained by their own population, admittedly a tough call in a world that glorifies suicide bombing. But terrorist prisoners can serve their terms under harsh conditions; hunger strikers can be allowed to die, thereby purifying some of the world’s air; their leadership can be terminated, as can their successors; disputed land can be annexed, new settlements can be built and negotiations can cease, for a generation or two; riots can be suppressed, forcefully, the world’s outrage ignored; the IDF’s rules of engagement can be relaxed; each rocket attack (the recent upsurge is Hamas’ attempt to deter Israel from retaliating for the murders) can be responded to with proportionately overwhelming force. Their atrocious society can be broken, such that those who aspire to a normal life for their children will want to leave.

The enemy will use every means available – including that old standby, the blood libel – in order to lessen the impact of the moment, in order that our memories should fade. We cannot let that happen, but we must rather crush evil even as we fill the world with good.

As the three boys take their place among all the holy martyrs of Jewish history, we all pray that G-d should grant strength and comfort to the families, and to His people, enable us to retain our goodness even in the fight against Israel, and send His righteous Moshiach to redeem His turbulent world.      And soon.