Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

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.

A Teen’s Lament

This essay, written by a teenage girl and now several years old, came to my attention recently. It is a window into a certain part of our world, but a darkly-tinted, grotesquely-distorted window. Here are relevant excerpts:

   “The service ends and one of the boys rises and begins to dole out aliyot for the boys to read next week: “Who will be here next week?” he asks. (I will.) “Who can layn?” (I can.) “Who wants shlishi (the third aliyah)?” (I do.) “OK, great, we’re done. Who wants to say Kiddush?” (Me.) None of these silent cries for religious participation are ever heard, of course, and kiddush is served without anyone wondering why the ratio for guys to girls is almost three to one.

What I don’t understand — it really does baffle me — is how we call ourselves Modern Orthodox. This patriarchal design we call a religious experience is not reflective of modern society; it’s as anachronistic as possible. The few allowances—the girls’ dvar Torah and the prayer for the State of Israel—take some of the sting out of the experience of invisibility, yet I still find myself perpetually irked. The caging restrictions are conducive to the small number girls present — why come when you mean nothing to the service?   …….

I know in my case certainly, and in the cases of many of my female peers, that this is an age where we will either fall into religion — or out. Thus I really don’t know how we can call ourselves Modern Orthodox and let every teenage girl grow up with no interest or opportunity and condone rabbinic indifference.

In modern society, we have women’s suffrage — women vote, women run organizations and women speak in public. So why should it be that suddenly the shul is the only area where women are denied such rights? When girls live in a time where gender roles are being demolished, no one associated with such modernity is going to want to connect to religion. As members of Modern Orthodoxy, we care so much about not upsetting the boundaries set up by the other more stringent sects of religions that we lose ourselves — and our girls……

Does anyone realize that if this keeps up, there will be no future movement because there will be no girls who know or care about any of this religion — and that it is your fault, Modern Orthodox society, not ours!”

I do hope in the ensuing years she has made peace with G-d’s Torah, but I assume there are others who have not (I pray not too many). We have to excuse the narcissism, the self-centeredness, of her generation; they were raised being told that they were all “special,” and they actually believe it. Life has not yet taught them that if everyone is “special,” then no one is special. That mistaken proposition also ignores the truism that “specialness” is earned by some unique ability or contribution to society, not acquired merely by virtue of respiration and ambulation.

I hope as well that she learns the meaning of Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim – the acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingship – a recognition that we are just servants of the Master, and not in a position to dictate to the Master what we think His Torah should decree, or else. As Rachel Fraenkel, for whose son’s freedom, and his two friends, we pray daily, said this past week: “G-d is not our employee.” We don’t get to prescribe to G-d how He is to be worshipped. And it is the implicit threat – “if I don’t get my feminist way, I will take my toys and go elsewhere”– that is so off-putting. But, again, that can be attributed to youth and an overestimation of the self. Perhaps she will outgrow it – but not if she does not receive guidance from her mentors.

And here’s the most troubling aspect of her writings, for which she is not at all to blame. In all her years of “Modern Orthodox” education, hasn’t there been even one person – parent, teacher, rabbi – who taught her that a shul is different, indeed, that Judaism is different, because its value system is not premised on nor beholden to the values of the modern non-Jewish society? Has she never been taught that Judaism has its own divinely-based system, and we do not judge the worth of that system or its precepts by measuring it against the prevailing mores of the rest of the world?

Is it too much to expect that a yeshiva or day school – wherever, and run by whomever – should at some point introduce the notion to its students that the Torah, both written and oral, is of divine origin; that there is a Mesorah that has guided Jewish life since Sinai; that its values represent the Divine will and were given to us to provide us with the means to actualize our human potential and live fulfilling lives as divine servants? Is that too much to ask for $20,000 per year?

That is the biggest failing in her education, and that of her like-minded friends. We have to ask ourselves what is happening in these communities that children are not taught that, or that Rabbis are not preaching that when necessary. And why not. What is the fear or hesitation?

Obviously, those in the camp of the discontented have an a priori conception of what Judaism should be – even what Modern Orthodoxy should be – that bears little relation to what it actually is. Here’s a news flash: there is a system that was entrusted to us in which we are mandated to both observe its laws as the faithful and preserve it as the guardians for future generations. A Torah that changes with the times to conform to modern sensibilities is not only not divine but also not worthy of preservation. It could not – and should not have survived – the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Christians, the Muslims and a host of others. (Indeed, the values of modern America are uncannily similar to those of ancient Rome in its decadence, to a great extent in its emptiness and its yearning for distractions from real life – World Cup? Who cares! – and even in the decay that has already set in.) What does any of that have to do with Judaism, and why would we want to import the failures of Western morals into our system, even if we could?

There is “unfairness” in the world with which we all must reckon in shul, in the workplace, and in life. For example, in baseball, a batter is out after three strikes, but takes first base after four balls. Unfair!! That gives the advantage to the pitcher and should be unacceptable to any thinking egalitarian. Why should the pitcher be advantaged? Alas, that is the system of baseball. We either accept the system or create a new game. Why is this so complicated?

It is further troubling that our young writer perceives Modern Orthodoxy as inherently capable of deviating from the Mesorah in order to accommodate her personal needs, or else it must be construed as hostage to the “stringent sects of religions” that clearly have no appeal to her. But a Modern Orthodoxy in which the veneer of ritual is superimposed on a degenerate lifestyle – as in the yarmulke-wearing off-color young comedian who recently appeared on American television, clearly clueless as to the boundaries of propriety in Jewish life – is less orthodox than it is modern, and in the worst sense of the term “modern.” Young girls who obsess over Tefillin and ignore the strictures of tzniut are really living in a different reality and have abandoned the pretense of serving G-d in favor of self-worship. One might as well daven in front of a mirror.

Indeed, Torah Judaism, modern or otherwise, is “not reflective of modern society.” That is to be celebrated, not lamented, for that is the whole point. We wouldn’t need the Torah if we could determine how to live – what G-d expects from us – by reading “The Feminine Mystique” or some female teen magazine. That is what is unique about Judaism and Jews. And so her explicit threat – if she and her friends are not accommodated, they will opt out – leaves me sad but also detached. I think of what Queen Esther was told by Mordechai at a critical moment in Jewish history and paraphrase it here: if indeed you want to establish your own religion or your own version of Judaism because you find the Torah unsatisfying at present, good luck with that. “Relief and salvation will come to the Jews from some other place, and you and your father’s house will be lost” (Esther 4:14). It has happened before; indeed, it has happened in every generation since Sinai. It is your choice whether or not you want it to happen to you.

Consider this not the “rabbinic indifference” that you castigate but the rabbinic truth to which you have apparently never been exposed. The answer to your complaints is intellectually straightforward even if it is emotionally unappealing to you. Orthodoxies that pander to the masses are not orthodoxies, even if they claim the name for themselves. Orthodoxies that have fluid belief systems are oxymorons with short shelf lives. The embrace of leftist political doctrine has already permeated the newest attempt to reform Orthodoxy, and with predictable results. That decline has already started, as the Torah faithful have retrenched and defined what is inside and/or outside the Mesorah. That flash in the pan is already fading, despite the repeated hoopla in the media.

I would not worry at all whether there is a future for Torah; that is guaranteed.

I would only worry whether you and those like you will be part of that future.

 

The Exchange, Part 2

     I received a response from my interlocutor, and reprint it fully with some minor editing. To make it easy on the reader, I have interspersed my comments within his response. As he asked not to be anonymous, I include his final salutation. May there be shalom al Yisrael!       – RSP

 E – I hope all is well with you and yours.   May you see Yiddishe nachas from all of them.

Thank you for your response. I did not write this letter to you b’mikreh. To the contrary, I heard about your speech and was shocked. No question that we have very bad PR, and I’m also not claiming that our community is perfect – and thus I can be דן לכף זכות — but there are aspects of your response that are so misleading and false and based more in prejudice than in fact or understanding that I felt a need to respond.

The attached document responds in depth to your points. Don’t be offended but we have to know how to respond to an אפקורוס כגון מאן אמר ר”י כגון הני דאמר מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו א”ל אביי האי מגלה פנים בתורה נמי הוא שכתוב אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חוקות שמים וארץ לא שמתי

SP-    I don’t assume that every Haredi is a “rabbanan” in the language of the Gemara. Most are not. I don’t know why you would assume that. And I thinks the problem here transcends PR.

E – Anyone who has had any actual human contact with Hareidim is generally struck by the extent of giving, rather than taking, that characterizes the community. The Har Nof directory has 36 pages of phone numbers and names of gemachs and community services! That’s not to mention, Hatzala, Zaka, Y‎ad Sara, Zichron Menachem, Yad Eliezer among an endless list of large and effective tzedaka organizations that serve the entire Jewish community, frum and chiloni. The endless time and money and energy spent in the world of kiruv rechokim to  bring unaffiliated Jews back to Avinu Sh’b’Shamayim, whether on college campuses, via outreach kollels or baal teshuva seminaries and yeshivas also largely traced to people who until they were in their mid-20s, sat and ingested Torah values and learning in yeshivas and seminaries. Then they spent the rest of their life living it through tzedaka v’chesed rather than chasing money for themselves. The idea that the Haredi world rests on taking rather than giving simply has no correspondence with reality and you should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting otherwise.

SP – The Haredi community has a plethora of chesed organizations. That is very true and speaks to their essential good hearts. But it is often true that the chesed organizations take the place of actual work because they typically lack a secular education that would enable them to join the work force in normative way, especially in Israel. E.g., I often have people come to my door from Israel – heads of “new” chesed organizations – who are simply collecting money for five families, ten families, twenty families, and of course including their own. The chesed is not without its financial benefit. Let us not ignore that.

     Here in America, people do chesed as well and volunteer for organizations. The local Teaneck volunteer ambulance corps is just that – volunteer. We support many of the organizations you mentioned, but you are ignoring the real story. Most chesed organizations provide services – primary or supplemental – and jobs for the organizers. These are jobs also – but jobs that take money out of the economy cannot substitute for jobs that grow the economy. You do not grow an economy with a plethora of chesed organizations. You just re-distribute income from those who work for it to those who don’t. Much more important are organizations that foster employment. Give a man a fish and you’ve given him a meal; teach a man to fish and you’ve given him a livelihood.

    And most of these organizations exist in some form in the non-Haredi communities as well, but they are not as prevalent simply because they usually deal with hardship cases – the sudden poor caused by illness, death, loss of employment or some other tragedy, not the willful poor. When people choose to be poor they encounter a different dynamic entirely. And kiruv is not limited to Haredim, obviously. The fact that there are 36 pages of gemachs in the Har Nof directory is a sign of kindness, but might it not also be a sign of dysfunction? The lack of otherwise gainful employment? And you would certainly be shocked to hear of the abundant charity organizations run by non-Jews in America. The Haredi – even Jewish – instinct for chesed is admirable, but it is not exclusive to them, and certainly should not substitute for gainful employment.

   Note, also, that the “giving” is exclusively on your terms, and not what the rest of the society needs or is asking for.

E – Nearly all my male Hareidi friends and relatives work and pay over 60% in taxes – meanwhile the Government cut our kids’ school budgets by 50%. My son currently gets no milk in the morning because the budget was cut.  Somebody is stealing my tax money, and it’s not the Haredim.

SP – But those are your friends! And you do come from a different background. The rate of adult-male employment in the Haredi world is one of the lowest – I think it is the lowest – in the industrial world. A recent statistic in the Haredi press “boasted” of a 54% adult male employment rate – but that is extraordinarily low. In the rest of the world, the rate in industrialized countries is around 70%. That means that 46% of adult males are being subsidized by someone else.

   Now, who gets what from the government is always a political question. For decades, the Haredi parties chaired the Knesset Finance Committee and used that position to funnel money to their communal needs at the expense of other communities. The election results turned them out of power, and with it, loss of those sinecures. It is a lamentable aspect of Israeli politics that too many people take care only of their own constituents, but, I guess, that is true of politics everywhere, even here in the US. There is nothing moral about it; it is politics. When the Haredim next join the coalition, it will be back to business as usual. BUT: were the school budgets cut because schools refused to comply with the core curriculum? Because there is an expectation of national service that is not being met? Because of bias? The kibbutzim used to have patrons that took care of them in the Knesset, as did the haredim. They also fluctuated based on electoral outcomes. That’s life. Your tax money is not being stolen – it is just being redirected for other national uses.

    Do you feel you are not getting your fair share of return on your tax dollar? If so, welcome to my world! In Teaneck, the Orthodox community pays more than 60% of the property taxes, and our return in services is less than 20% (mainly because we don’t use the public school system). And, double whammy: New Jersey has the lowest ratio in the nation – 50th out of 50 states – in the return to the state of federal spending based on federal taxes paid, about 60 cents on the dollar. These complaints are universal, not limited to you.

E – How about what Haredi education produces relative to morality? In our schools there is virtually no drugs, sex or violence. There is not a yeshiva in the world that has metal detectors to check its students – how does that compare to the secular system of education?

SP – None of our schools have metal detectors either. And the yeshiva system even here still produces a decent product. The dropout rate in all religious communities is roughly the same. But – what is their educational product? Does the haredi system produce a student who can function in civil society?

      I find it fascinating that your straw man is always the “secular” system or world, as if there exists only this dichotomy: Haredi v. secular. But that is not true. There is an entire world of religious Jews who are neither Haredi nor secular (not that the Haredi world is completely monolithic). You certainly know it from your background, but you know it from Israel as well – the Hardalim, the Dati-Leumi, etc. – people whose lives fully implement the Torah system in the real world, not just theorize about it in the Bet Midrash. I have always assumed that one of the great fears of the Haredi establishment about military service was not the exposure to secular culture but the exposure to Torah Jews who know how to learn Torah, perform mitzvot, fight in G-d’s wars, build a country, get an education, etc. – i.e., a balanced life. That life undercuts the Haredi argument that mandates segregation as the only means to the preservation of Torah.

  E – From high school on, the men’s educational process is focused on Torah. Isn’t it amazing that people without college are nonetheless able to start and operate successful businesses of all kinds, from crafts (plumbing, electrical, contracting) to retails to finance to real estate to start-ups. All without having studied Shakespeare or art history – without knowing how many wives King Henry 8th divorced or beheaded – and without having had to subject themselves to the looseness, depravity and coarseness of midos one finds with such ease on a college campus. But the Israeli Government feels it knows better and wants to impose its standards on our time-tested curriculum. Not a culture war? Really?

I am an investment banker and have raised over 50 million dollars for Israeli companies supporting hundreds of secular families. Nearly all the owners of those businesses are secular — They love me and I love them ( I don’t hide my peyot) certainly not in Teaneck. My Partners supports hundreds if not thousands of Israelis in construction, law, accounting, security, insurance, architecture and engineering, to name a few, via his real estate business. I have another close friend who moved his family here to open a baal teshuva yeshiva that is one of the largest employers in its neighborhood. We all pay taxes here. All of my friends and peers are busy with tzedaka projects – many if not most not content just to give money, but insistent upon giving time and effort and talent as well. All this in addition to commitment to regular Torah learning. Is that really a hateful existence?

SP- Here is the crux of the issue. You are not typical, obviously. They are many Haredi businessmen, many successful Haredi businessmen. But you know they are not typical of Haredi society, unless you are asserting that what is perceived as the endemic poverty in the Haredi world is a “secular” myth . I also don’t care how many wives Henry VIII (or for that matter, the VII) had – but I do care that in today’s world, children learn English, math, science, writing skills, even Jewish history and Jewish philosophy. An eighth grade knowledge of those subjects is as embarrassing as an eighth grade Torah education (or, as it might be, a fourth grade education).

   It is interesting that Haredim in America have never embraced the value system of Haredim in Israel, at least not until recently. Some went to college, some didn’t (there are even online colleges today for which you almost never need to leave home) – but all knew they would have to support families someday, and not through starting chesed organizations. An educational system that produces bnai Torah, good citizens (I’ll add – Ahavat Yisrael of all types, Ahavat Eretz Yisrael, and a willingness to fight for it as Haredim did in 1948) who can support themselves and help others would be embraced by all, even the secular. No one intends to produce violent, depraved, backwards, drug-addled, parasitic, drunken miscreants. Not all secular schools produce the latter, like not all haredi schools produce the former. That’s reality.

E – How about the families that you so revile where the husband is learning in Kollel? Let’s check a few facts here. The government used to help with $200 a month; Lapid and Bennet cut it to almost nothing!  The average hareidi family has about 8 children. We pay 18% vat tax on all we consume. Do you really think these families live on Government handouts? In these families the wives are all working (did you assume they were home redesigning their kitchens, eating bon-bons, shopping at our equivalent of the Short Hills mall or Nordstroms and filing their nails?). Do you have a similar problem when one of your secular friends has a wife who works and the husband stays home? I never heard anyone ever complain about that concept. So why is it that a family that is willing to forego all the pleasures of the olam ha-gashmi to pursue a self-sacrificing spiritually oriented existence voluntarily, supported in dignity by a working wife who believes in the primacy of Torah study be so reviled by you?

SP – I don’t revile anyone! Chas Veshalom! I love all Jews. But I still fail to see why the government – someone else’s tax dollars – is obligated to support someone in kollel. Find a Zevulun, a private benefactor. Similarly, I fail to see why the government – someone else’s tax dollars – would be obligated to support a talented artist, poet or basketball player. Is it the same? Of course not, based on my value system. But the Tel Avivian who has not yet been attracted to Torah has a different value system. Don’t tell me – tell him why he has to pay for yours.

    Better question: how many extra hours should my children in Israel work every week in order to support those who wish to learn full-time? And what if they would rather use those extra hours to learn Torah themselves? Why is that option foreclosed?

    I also have no secular friends, not that I’m proud of that! Then again, I don’t get out much. But I do think it is troubling if a wife works to support her husband and the family. Ultimately, as we know from our world, it causes real shalom bayit issues. But I don’t judge. If it works for them, it’s fine with me. In fact, the only cases I know of secular families in which the wife works and the husband doesn’t (the Mr. Mom dynamic) is where the husband has temporarily lost his job or is incapable of working. But if a Haredi family chooses that – tavo aleihem bracha – but just don’t expect the rest of society to subsidize it.

E – With large families the Hareidim are massive spenders on consumption and investment in Israel.  Ask Osem or Pampers or Simalec. Or anyone in the world of real estate and contruction. As consumers we give back a multiple of what we “take”.

SP – I’m not sure your statistics are accurate. But this is: EVERYBODY pays VAT, everybody pays taxes, and everyone consumes. They just make different consumption choices. And I must be missing something: if Haredim are such massive spenders on consumption, real estate, etc., why is a cut in school milk money so devastating? Ha’ikar chaser min hasefer – something essential is missing from your argument.

E – All this is without any reference to the spiritual value of what we contribute to our society – which as a rabbi and learner I hope you might at least modestly appreciate……אפקורוס כגון מאן אמר ר”י כגון הני דאמר מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו א”ל אביי האי מגלה פנים בתורה נמי הוא שכתוב אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חוקות שמים וארץ לא שמתי

As far as the Rambam, please see the attached. There are almost 30 poskim listed who disagree with the Rambam, including the Mechaber in three places.  In addition, we can probably agree that the Brisker Ruv’s son, R’ Moshe’s son and R’ Aharon’s grandson know a thing or two about the Rambam  — yet they attended.

Like you, I grew up with Zionism uber alas. But we did not hate the Haredim . I told a friend of Bennett’s ( to paraphrase Golda Meir) that I can forgive him for stealing our money, starving the avreichim, and supporting legislation to jail our kids … but I can’t forgive him for causing me to hate him‎ and causing you to hate me.

SP – I appreciate everyone’s Talmud Torah. I just don’t genuflect before the altar of those who insist that Haredi Talmud Torah is superior, nor to those who think their Ahavat Yisrael is superior. Every person – groups – has strengths and weaknesses.

    One of the bigger mistakes of the Haredi world is projecting the sense that their Judaism is more authentic than everyone else’s and therefore deserves the support of others. It is not. The Haredi world has strengths and weaknesses like any other group. Indeed, there are many things that the Haredi world can teach other Torah Jews and many things that the Haredi world needs to learn from other Torah Jews. But the Haredi world is trying to recreate something that never existed, and thus has run into problems.

     And – whatever you, I or others might say – the Rambam is still the Rambam. People do disagree with the Rambam, but they haven’t refuted his basic idea, which has turned out to be spot on: Kava me’or hadat. People have lost respect for the Torah lifestyle because of the Haredi estrangement from general society, not grown in respect. And, obviously, there are many Rabbanim who have an interest in keeping the status quo, or fear a public dissent from it.

    But, there was a time when Haredim understood this as well. In last Friday’s Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Stewart Weiss, whose son Ari hy”d fell in battle while protecting Jewish life, including this observation from post-1948:      “Indeed, no less a figure than the late Grand Rebbe of Gur – a Chassidic leader far ahead of his time – appealed to the yeshiva world to break down the wall of separation and allow yeshiva students to do their fair share in “giving back” to the nation. If they did not, he warned presciently, they would eventually provoke major animosity and resentment from the general public, resulting in a terrible Chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. Tragically, the Rebbe’s plea was rejected, the number of yeshiva exemptions grew exponentially, and the problem was left to simmer and boil. Now, the polarization and hatred it has created has divided our nation and been laid bare for all to see.

   I tell you that it is critical not to hate. I don’t hate Haredim at all, although I do feel sorry for many who – as they have told me – feel trapped. And you should not hate anyone, r”l, especially Naphtali Bennett. I have met him several times, he even has some good Teaneck roots. He is a wonderful person, very dedicated to Klal Yisrael. He really believes he is helping Haredim (I think he is right) – not just with the army but with entering the work force. He knows – you know – the present economics are unsustainable. The people who were paying for it no longer want to pay for it, secular and religious. And you know as well that permanent exemptions from army service or employment are also not sustainable. That is the society in which you live. Do not forget that all this came about because the High Court ruled that the current system was inequitable and therefore unlawful. Even the present Shaked Bill which Haredim so revile might not pass muster! But the status quo could not go on much longer, as the Gerrer Rebbe anticipated.

E – In the world of Israeli kiruv (just like the global phenomenon) there’s an amazing reality: virtually all who become frum — and there are well over 100k — become chareidim (of one form or another). They all grew up interacting with the datei Leumi, yet when push comes to shove, that’s not the lifestyle and community they choose. How odd for such a highly educated and unbiased (other than the extreme anti-Haredi bias they are raised with) to choose such a different way of life (one that will surely bring them no prestige or power or connections). How strange that they choose to join what you view as a cult of takers and uncaring, non-contributing families and individuals. Somehow the appeal of authentic and committed Torah and Yiddishkeit weighs more than the alternative.

The official prayer for the army? We love the soldiers and pray for them every day. In times of stress and war our shuls are full of people davening and saying Tehillim and personal prayers. We also cry when they fall, and Hatzola and unfortunately Zaka are there to pick them up! We don’t need the nusach of the chief Rabbi; we have Chazal אחינו כל בית ישראל……

With love,

Ephraim

SP- I think you are right about the kiruv statistics (not in our part of the world, of course). That is because the cloistered life poses fewer challenges, and I can see why a baal teshuva would want to sever any connection with his prior life even if not all do. But the balanced life appeals to others – not violations of halacha, r’l, but just a comfort level interacting with the rest of society.

   Your last paragraph is the most troubling, because in your entire response, you neglected to address one key point: the rejection of army service. That is bad enough – haacheichem tavou lamilchama v’atem teshvu po? – but the reluctance to say the accepted tefila for Tzahal wins no friends in the dati-leumi community. Must you be different just to be different? Are you still fighting Herzl? Is tefila really a substitute for actual participation in national defense or national service?

  If so, perhaps then you can relate to this analogy: the dati leumi community (we’ll try to get the seculars involved as well) will offer heartfelt tefilot in our own way and of our own composition for the material success of the Haredim. You just won’t get any money from the government and the society you so disdain. That would be too practical.

With blessings for continued success, your friend who loves, values and respects you,

 Steven Pruzansky

An Exchange

Earlier this week, I was contacted by an old friend who now lives in Israel, part of the Chareidi world. He sent me his thoughts, and I responded, and the exchange is reproduced below, with minor editing. I have deleted the friend’s name.   -RSP

6 Adar II 5774, March 8, 2014

Dear Steven,

Ahead of the mass gathering of Torah true Jewry scheduled to take place tomorrow in Manhattan, I’m reaching out to you, our brothers in America, to share with you the sad truth: here, in the State of Israel, Torah Jewry is subject to religious persecution.

To classify Torah students as “criminals,” subject to imprisonment, is only the latest and most absurd of anti-chareidi laws enacted recently by the government. In addition, they have  drastically cut education and welfare budgets, aiming to choke our yeshivos and schools, and even our individual religious freedoms, so prized by Americans and citizens of democracies worldwide.

Under the deceptive mantra of ‘sharing the burden’ the government is responsible for a wave of unprecedented incitement against chareidim, thereby splitting the nation. It is no secret that the objective of conscripting Torah scholars is a thinly disguised attempt at social engineering.

Is it conceivable that a Jewish government in Israel is trying to prevent its citizens from living Torah-true lives in the tradition that their ancestors for generations were moser nefesh for?

As you prepare to gather to offer heartfelt tefillos tomorrow, please remember that the train of persecution of lomdei Torah has already left the station and that there is no doubt that it is more difficult to stop a train that is already moving than to prevent it from leaving. But we must not despair and have to try to raise the alert, and to make all possible efforts to change things, before the train picks up speed. Because the route this train is heading towards leads directly to the abyss.

We know that the heart of Torah-true American Jewry beats together with its brethren in Eretz Yisrael, and senses that the danger to Torah observance in the Holy Land is a danger to the entire Jewish world. We believe that you recognize that learning and living Torah in Eretz Yisrael in holiness and purity is the basis for the existence of Torah true Yiddishkeit in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora.

And therefore, grasp onto the craft of our fathers, and plead to Hashem that He protect and send salvation to all those who seek His yeshuos, so that shomrei Torah and lomdei Torah throughout will be able to continue to draw upon the eitz chaim, the tree of life, of the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel, that sustains us all.

Sincerely,
(Name deleted)
Your brother in Eretz Yisrael

———————————————————————————–

Dear ———:

It is great to hear from you and I hope you and the family are well, but I must part company with you on this issue, and I will not be participating in the rally today. In fact, I denounced it yesterday – even noted (based on a Midrash at the beginning of Vayikra) that there is such a concept of a “Talmid chacham she-ein bo da’at.”   Here is why:

Chareidim make a mistake in thinking that only the Lapid-led diehard seculars have a growing contempt for them. The dati-leumi community is also increasingly hostile, because they sense – to me, accurately – that the Chareidi community is causing hatred for Torah. It is impossible to explain to – take, for one example – my nephew, who learned in Hesder and completed his army service, why his Talmud Torah is somehow inferior to that of Chareidim. It is not. Perhaps his Talmud Torah is the same, but the Charedi world’s “Nosei b’ol im chaveiro” is completely absent. That deficiency in Ahavat Yisrael is glaring, noticed and the reason why the society at large no longer tolerates it.

It is unconscionable that there exists in the Chareidi world this idea that work and army service are beneath them, and that the rest of society which they hold in contempt must work and pay higher taxes in order to support them in order that they should sit and learn. I too would love to sit and learn, and have someone support me, but that is not the system that Hashem set up. Odd, indeed, that the Rambam’s clear statement (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10-11) is ignored, if it is even taught. But when he speaks of “kavah me’or hadat,” that is exactly what has happened, and solely because the Chareidi world has not fully embraced the Torah. That construct of the Chareidi world as practiced today is unprecedented in Jewish history.
The Chareidi lifestyle as currently constituted is unsustainable. Everyone knows it, even their gedolim know it – but many are afraid to speak the truth for fear of physical attacks or peer reproach. They are literally trapped in a different era, using the language of Czarist Russia, Antiochus and Purim to describe a government that is the biggest financial supporter of Torah in the world. That is not leadership. I fully endorse the notion of a Yissachar-Zevulun relationship for as long as the parties agree, but no Yissachar has the right to force someone else – the whole society? – to be a Zevulun. That is simply not part of the Torah system.

What is wrong with all Jews participating in national defense? Or, if for whatever reason Chareidim feel they cannot, what is wrong with even Chareidim doing national service – helping out in nursing homes, teaching Torah in deprived communities, even doing chesed work for a year or two? That is known as giving back to society. One can’t only take; one must give as well. Certainly, as Rav Dessler emphasized repeatedly, giving – not taking – is the essence of the righteous person. When I learned in Israel, I thought it quite natural to participate in the national defense. I didn’t necessarily enjoy – at the time – the loss of sleep because of overnight patrols, but I am happy I did it, and only benefited from it, even in terms of Talmud Torah. How can Zaka take time off from learning to pick up the pieces, r”l, after a terrorist attack? Why can’t the same people work to thwart the terrorist attack in the first place?
Indeed, the army doesn’t really need Chareidi service as much as the Chareidim – for halachic and moral reasons – need it for themselves. But army service is mainly a portal into the work force, and that is key. The rate of employment in the Israeli Chareidi community is simply too low. The work force participation rate of adult males in Bnei Brak, Betar Illit, Kiryat Sefer, etc., is scandalous. Perhaps that is the true “war on Torah,” because the impression given that one cannot be a Torah Jew and a Talmid Chacham – and work and support one’s family – is an outrageous canard. All the Tannaim and Amoraim worked for a living. The greatest of our people – Avraham, Moshe, Yehoshua, David, etc. – all went to war when necessary. The Torah exempts four classes of people from battle: the scholar is not one of the exemptions, for Jewish wars especially require the participation of Talmidei Chachamim.

I am inclined to agree with Rav Rakeffet of Yerushalayim: “someone who thinks that he will not be a Gaon if he serves for a short time in the military will not be a Gaon in any event.” But it is unconscionable to expect the rest of society to support a lifestyle that is alien to them, and frankly, alien to Torah. Why would a “secular” Jew be attracted to a “Torah” lifestyle that purports to demand estrangement from the general society, a cloistered abode, a rejection of general knowledge, an inability to function in the presence of women, a disdain for gainful employment and self-support, etc.? It doesn’t seem very attractive, except for one who wants to escape from the world.

I don’t believe that Chareidim should be imprisoned for refusal to serve, nor that it will ever happen.  But, I note half in jest, what if it did? One can learn Torah full-time anywhere, even in prison. In fact, prison is ideal. Rav Meir Kahane hy”d wrote a 500-page sefer while he was in prison.  Every Israeli prison has a fully-stocked Bet Midrash, there are regular minyanim, Magidei Shiurim come every day, the food is mehadrin, there are no women present, no distractions at all. There are regular furloughs for Yamim Tovim. The government can support them anywhere. It’s just a change in venue. I don’t underestimate the hardships of prison life, but the Israeli jail is not the Gulag to which Jews were sent for learning Torah.

That they don’t proudly embrace the consequences of defiance means there is another factor at work: as you write, there are people who perceive the actions of the government as “social engineering” designed to “prevent Chareidim from living Torah-true lives.” I don’t believe that, and the extent to which the Charedi world has alienated natural supporters and lovers of Torah should be worrisome to them. But anyone who does believe that should not insist that the government subsidize that lifestyle. I personally oppose incarceration or criminal penalties, but I also would grant no government benefits at all to people who refuse to perform any type of national service. The Chareidi educational system is also in disarray; I do not see why the government should support any school system that does not educate its students in a way that will enable them to function in society. Is that really a “Torah-true” life? I think not.

One last point, which goes to the heart of this: I have never heard of a Chareidi shul where the tefila for Tzahal is recited. Forget the tefila for the medina – but why wouldn’t they say the tefila for Tzahal? I have asked this question many times to Chareidi acquaintances, and mostly been met with stunned silence and occasionally with a muffled “the Rebbe…the Rosh Yeshiva… has never told us to say it.” It is simply inexplicable, a lack of derech eretzhakarat hatov, and common sense.

What a Kiddush Hashem it would be if the Charedi leadership announced today that, it still rejects conscription, but henceforth it will daven for Tzahal every week! That would go a long way to easing tensions, perhaps not with Yair Lapid and his cohorts but with the Dati-Leumi Torah community that you are rapidly losing.

I love all Torah Jews and I hate all distortions of Torah. The Chareidi Torah world has so much to offer, and I refuse to accept this prevailing notion that they need to treated like handicapped children with special needs, that they are unable to live and interact with normal people. I reject that. I will treat them like precious Jews but like adults: those who are poreish min hatzibur should not be shocked or disheartened when the tzibur is in turn poreish from them.  The Chareidi world, on some level, perceives itself as a self-contained community that can insulate itself from the greater society which it holds (at least in some aspects, understandably) in contempt. But then don’t be surprised when that same society – which feels the contempt – then decides it no longer wishes to subsidize or indulge that community.

With friendship, all blessings and wishes for nachat v’chul tuv,

Steven Pruzansky

Your Brother in America

—————————————————————————————————-Those who wish to hear a powerful, passionate, and heartfelt sicha on this matter, please listen to Rav David Milston, RoshYeshiva of Midreshet Harova in the Old City, and his reaction to the rally in Israel.  Listen at:

Being Really Smart

      How should a shul respond if a member suddenly pulled out the Wall Street Journal (illustrious paper that it is) during davening and began reading it? How would fellow members react if someone began playing Scrabble during Chazarat Hashatz – assuming that the observer was himself not playing?

      The distractions during tefila (prayer) have certainly changed over the years. I remember when a beeper was a novelty, but such was limited to potential medical emergencies. (Come to think of it, I remember as a child seeing one fellow actually read a newspaper in shul, during the Torah reading!) As we all know, the scourge of today’s shul has long been the cell phone whose chimes, in many places, are regularly interspersed with the cadences of tefila. Many of the chimes are recognizable – generic, factory-installed sounds; others are majestic (Beethoven’s Fifth), some are uplifting (Beethoven’s Sixth – the Pastoral Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee) and some are inspirational and nationalistic (Hatikvah). But all, in the context of the davening are, frankly, inappropriate and annoying.

      This problem transcends all boundaries – religions, denominations within Judaism, as well as within Orthodoxy. Far be it from me to speculate as to where the challenge is worse – Shtiebel, shul , Young Israel, ModO, etc.  It is pervasive. Fortunately, in our shul we have succeeded in eliminating this bane of the modern mitpallel almost entirely through repeated reminders and gentle admonitions, such that the occasional offender is almost always an unknowing guest or a visiting meshulach, or (rarely) a regular who forgot he was carrying his phone with him. In fact, we encourage people to leave their phones at home or in their cars, as they really have no acceptable use during davening.

       But fast forward to today’s smart phone that not only functions as a telephone but also as a siddur, chumash, newspaper, joke book, encyclopedia, Scrabble game and window to the infinite world of knowledge and nonsense. It does everything but daven for you, although I am sure that App is in the works. How should we relate to this modern contrivance which has both sacred and profane uses?

Our Sages went to great lengths to ensure that we would be able to maintain kavana (concentration) during davening. Reciting words by rote and without attentiveness is compared (by Rabbenu Bachye in Chovot Halevavot, Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh, Chapter 3) to a “body without a spirit.” It is lifeless.

Thus, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 90) notes that, if possible, we should daven facing a wall, with nothing or no one in front of us. We should never daven in back of someone wearing bold, bright-colored clothing – it is too distracting. The Rema adds that, for the same reason, we should not even pray from a siddur that has pictures in it.

And not only that:  the Shulchan Aruch (OC 96) contains further admonitions: “When a person prays, he should not hold in his hand tefillin, nor a sefer from the holy books, nor a full plate, nor a knife, money or a loaf of bread, because in all those cases he is focused on not dropping them, and his concentration will be disturbed and nullified.” In the initial instance, this applies to the Shemoneh Esrei (the classic tefila) but it is extended as well (by the Pri Megadim) to Psukei D’Zimra and Shema, so essentially it applies to the entire davening. These laws are rooted in the Talmudic discussion (Masechet Berachot 23b) wherein Rashi states that all these activities “unsettle the mind.” The plate might break or its contents spill, the knife might fall and impale your foot, money might be dropped and lost, and a book will divert your attention. What should we hold in our hands? Nothing, except for a siddur, if necessary.

Anything that can be diverted for other uses, or whose primary purpose is not tefila, cannot be held during the davening. Anything that is valuable such that its potential loss or breakage weighs on one’s mind also cannot be held during the davening. The Pri Megadim adds another cogent reason for these limitations: it is not derech eretz (here meaning “courtesy” or “common decency”) to stand before eminent people holding extraneous objects in one’s hand, and certainly not while talking to them. How much reverent should we be standing before the King of Kings?

It is obvious that cell phones should be prohibited from all shuls. Phones are a means of communication with the outside world – the very world that we try to shut out for a few minutes several times a day so that we can concentrate on our relationship with the Creator. I have been left aghast in some shuls in which people actually carried on conversations after they answered their ringing phones – and nothing that was remotely life-threatening (just mundane business, and the like). Those whose jobs require constant access to a telephone (e.g., the president’s military aide who carries the “football” containing the codes that the president will need in order to authorize a nuclear attack on our enemies) are really exempt from public prayer. Certainly, a doctor’s life-saving work is held in esteem, and most know to keep their phones on “vibrate” so as not to disturb others. This is old news.

But this is new. Several months ago after discussing this topic in shul, I announced a ban (since then, thank G-d, strictly adhered to, for the most part) on the use of smart-phones during tefilla. A smart-phone, for all its wonders, is actually a holy book, a full plate, a knife, money, a loaf of bread – not to mention a telephone, a newspaper and a Scrabble game – all in one. It is everything that Chazal prohibited – valuable, breakable and a fount of distractions. Even if the phone element is turned off, the temptation is too great and the diversions are too accessible. The email beeps, the texts ring – and worse – it is the intrusion of the outside world that we struggle to keep afar during tefilla.

In a shul, the smart-phone has no place. Use a siddur! They are available in abundance.

That is not to say that the siddur/chumash, etc. apps have no value or use at all – on the contrary. Every smart-phone owner should have them (as if you didn’t know that!). They come in handy when a siddur is unavailable or where the lighting is so dim that a siddur can’t be easily read. It is also salutary even to see the siddur or Torah icon on the phone during the day, good reminders generally and especially when one is using the phone for other purposes.

By all means buy and use the holy apps! Just not in shul. I would hope and pray that other shuls will follow our lead. Rav Yosef Karo entitled that Chapter 96 of the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim “to preclude all nuisances so that one can concentrate.” There is no greater, more consistent nuisance imaginable. The ban seems obvious and long overdue.

In its proper place, the new technology can often benefit and enrich our lives. But we control the technology; it doesn’t control us. When it comes to shul and to davening, let it wait outside. Just for a few minutes. It will still be there when we finish, but we will be better off for the few minutes’ respite. And we will be able to daven in peace and quiet, and with a little more kavana.

 

 

The First

Few things bore me more than reading about the “firsts.” No, not the first person to climb Mount Everest or the first person on the moon, but about the first black to… the first woman to… the first Jew to… the first disabled person to…the first homosexual to… etc.

It is worse than boring; it is demeaning. It is the outcome of a peculiarly liberal approach to humanity that defines people not as individuals, nor sees their accomplishments as those of unique individuals, but rather as an expression of whatever group to which they are supposed to belong. There are no “people” anymore; you are whatever bracket that you have been assigned. Your deeds are celebrated because of the classification that you are given in some cases from birth, in other cases acquired through life’s experiences.

To many liberal elitists today, your basic rights accrue to you because of the group to which you have been assigned, and some groups are entitled to special rights because of their group identity. It ensures that you will always be judged by your group label, which can never be shed or disregarded. It demands that you show solidarity to the group intellectually, politically, and materially. The NY Times always specializes in these types of calculations – counting up the number of blacks, women, etc. who are in public or corporate positions, belong to certain clubs, or have achieved positions of prominence in industry, politics or athletics.

Affirmative action is based on the notion that you are your group identity. A black teenager from a wealthy home or possessing superior athletic skills has advantages over the poor white teenager equally (or sometimes more) gifted scholastically but who cannot claim membership in one of the cherished groups. Graduate schools still apply these quotas that affect whites and Jews for sure, but Asians even more so.

The overt assumption is that any group that is not represented anywhere in rigid accordance with its proportion in the population is the subject of discrimination. Well, not every group. The dearth of Jews in professional sports in the New York area where American Jews disproportionately live has never been attributed to discrimination, although it should be, obviously. Talent is clearly not the issue. Certainly, Orthodox Jews – of whom there are none in professional sports – have the greatest claim to this type of discrimination. Is it bias, or is it an unwillingness to make reasonable accommodations to Orthodox Jews (like no games on Friday night or Shabbat)? I wonder…

There are two problems with “the first” syndrome. First, it precludes a fair evaluation of the individual as an individual. The “first homosexual” (open, they say) football player is a perfect example of this. Why he saw the need to share his bedroom practices with the world is one unanswerable question, but completely in line with today’s obsession with exhibitionism. But, essentially, he has asked to be assessed based on a behavioral pattern that he embraces that he shares with others. I never heard of him before this week, but prepare for this: when draft day comes, if he is drafted in the first round, his team will be extolled by the elites for its courage and openness. If he is drafted in a lower round, the league and its teams will be castigated for their cowardice and narrow-mindedness. Talent – the primary determinant, presumably – plays a lesser role. You could write that story today.

And if he is blocked hard or suffers an injury during a game, prepare for the allegations that he was treated differently, singled out, or punished for his group identity. But who is the one who foisted his group identity on an uninterested or unknowing public? The person himself. He could have chosen to be judged as an individual and keep private what is inherently private. He didn’t.  He diminished himself as an individual by asserting the primacy of his group identity.

That is the second problem. “The first” syndrome is dehumanizing. The Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 37a) states that “the first man” (Adam; OK, that was an acceptable “first”) was created as an “individual” to show the preciousness of every person as an individual, as a unique existence, and as a special creation of G-d. “A person can mint many coins and they are all similar, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, fashioned every human being with the stamp of Adam, but no two human beings are alike.” And elsewhere the Talmud (Masechet Berachot 58a) asserts that “human beings neither think alike nor look alike.” We each possess the “divine image” – a soul – that guarantees our uniqueness. That is missing in a world where everyone is just a coin of one denomination or another.

The “first” syndrome also imposes a group-think obligation on all members of the group and thereby also belittles their individuality. Justice Clarence Thomas is lambasted, as are many conservative blacks, for not sharing the world-views or singing from the victimization hymnal of the professional black race-hucksters and their liberal enablers. Women who are not feminists (or even anti-feminists) are routinely castigated for their backwardness and betrayal of the sisterhood. There are homosexuals who are opposed to the re-definition of marriage. G-d help them withstand the wrath of their “group.”

And, as we know too well, it distorts politics and statecraft. The “first black” president was intensely desired by many; qualifications and background did not matter. The imperial presidency and its encroachments on freedoms in a way unseen in 40 years is ignored by the same media that has crucified other presidents for the same and for less. We should prepare ourselves for the onslaught of the “first woman” as president drumbeat. And then? Let every other group apply, I suppose. It will be their turn.

There is a “first” every day. Every day is the “first” time I have lived that day, prayed its prayers, performed the day’s Mitzvot and lived my life. Even the famous “firsts” are trivialized by the association of their accomplishments with only one aspect of their identity, for every person has multiple components. Human beings as individuals have many different connections and relationships; that – and our personalities – is what makes us individuals.

There is little that is as divisive in modern life as the diminution of the individual and the celebration of the group. The great sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once wrote about Joe Louis (the heavyweight champion boxer known as the “Brown Bomber”) that “he is a credit to his race, the human race.” Unfortunately, that mindset has died, replaced by our growing anticipation of reading of some achievement by the “first black/ female/ Jewish/disabled/homosexual to ever….”

Never mind.