Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

Disorder in the Court

Last week was not a particularly good one for jurisprudence, integrity, marriage, morality, common sense and even the United States’ viability as a nation. Two court cases undermined traditional notions of morality and marriage, respectively, and enshrined in law – or at least purported to – draconian limitations on the pursuit of self-help as well as a dramatic redefinition of marriage that will hasten the decline of the American family if not the American polity itself.

First, a New Jersey jury found JONAH liable for consumer fraud. JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) is a referral agency that helps people struggling with unwanted same sex attraction. It was sued by a number of patients – all instigated by the Southern Poverty Law Center, ranging far afield from its stated mission – who were unsuccessfully treated and could not overcome their same sex tendencies. The victims claimed that they were guaranteed recovery if they did the hard work necessary and protested some of the unconventional methods used by some of the therapists. They sued for recovery of the fees they paid – as well as substantial damages that now threatens the very existence of the organization. And they won.

The fix was in even before the trial started. There is no conceivable way JONAH could have prevailed.  The trial judge ruled that the court would not allow any evidence that homosexuality can result from a mental disorder or youthful trauma – that such science had been settled and was no longer under discussion. Of course, the case effectively ended there because if homosexuality is not the result of any disorder, then why would anyone treat it? Why would anyone try to cure what does not need to be cured or attempt to abandon what the court ruled is a normal, healthy expression of sexuality? Why, indeed.

The dark secret is that many mental health professionals continue to maintain that homosexuality can result from some disorder but they are petrified to say it publicly or to put it in writing. Once the psychiatric establishment amended the DSM over forty years ago to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder – a decision based not on science but on politics and pressure – the expression of any dissenting views has been chilled. There is real fear of ostracism and employment termination, and so professionals play along. But once the court here ruled that it would not even entertain any evidence that homosexuals need or can benefit from therapy, even if the patient wants it, there was no way JONAH could prevail. Psychologists do not treat people to change their eye color or their right-handedness, so of course, under these parameters, the jury found JONAH liable for consumer fraud.

The jury was left with no real choice, notwithstanding the hundreds of people who have been helped by JONAH and were able to marry (or remain married) and parent children and notwithstanding JONAH’s own assertions that its “success” rate is consistent with that of successful therapy from other afflictions or addictions, a rate of perhaps 15-20%. It is not as if the desires disappear and the person is completely reoriented; rather, patients were urged to face the reality of their condition and sometimes in harsh ways, and then received behavioral tools to sublimate the desires and lead a heterosexual life. It won’t work for everyone – JONAH never made such a claim – but it has worked for many. So who are you going to believe –the jury, “science,” or these lying eyes?

Only a layman can fairly ask: how is it possible for a man to change into a woman – and be honored, feted and praised as courageous for doing so – but a homosexual cannot change into a heterosexual? Indeed, the possibility itself must be suppressed and denied, and all who participate shunned by civil society. Here is one answer: it is because the manipulators of morality and the debauched social engineers have decided that homosexuals are a protected class and homosexuality the equivalent of a religion, that it is normal and that the rest of society must accept it as normal, and change therapy challenges all those notions and must be repudiated. Sex changes also must be protected because they also challenge conventional society. Everyone else must kowtow to them and live on the defensive, afraid to speak the truth we all recognize. Thus, there is a bill pending before Congress that would ban even talk therapy for unwanted same sex attraction. Can anyone name another condition for which therapy is banned even for someone desperate for it?

It is a strange world we live in.

Like the American Psychiatric Association’s waffling on this issue, the court’s ruling, which informed the jury that homosexuality both should not and could not be treated, was politics and populism, not law, unsuited to a courtroom and unfair to the defendants. It is also unfair to religious Jews: the only options recognized by halacha for the homosexual are therapy (if possible) or celibacy. The verdict is therefore an outrageous assault on individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

The ruling should also terrify mental health professionals who now are subject to lawsuits if therapy fails, and especially if the malady being treated can be deemed by some to be normal, healthy and worthy of celebration. (Maybe the alcoholic is just an unusually thirsty fellow…so why treat alcoholism?)  No one maintains that homosexuality must be treated – but to deny the right of someone with homosexual tendencies to seek treatment is bizarre, unjust and dictatorial. Such is the power of the homosexual lobby to intimidate, threaten and harass anyone who disagrees with its agenda.

Thus, it was quite predictable that the Supreme Court would find in the US Constitution a “right” to same sex marriage and even more predictable that Justice Kennedy would provide the deciding vote and write the majority decision. It was classic Supreme Court jurisprudence, in the worst sense – placing an arrow on the target and then drawing a circle around it. Bull’s eye! The scathing dissents are all worthy of reading because they underscore the sorry state of the American judiciary and the utter absence of any semblance of constitutionality, democracy and legal coherence. It is telling that none of the other four justices in the majority wrote a concurrence; can one add gossamer to already thin air?

Obviously, the Constitution makes no reference to marriage (a purely state issue) and so it can contain no “right” to same sex marriage. It is all made up, and for the crass purpose of social engineering. Kennedy gamely wrote that the legitimate, natural expression of love is limited to two people. Why that is so is a mystery; and even a first week law student could explain that such a sentiment is dicta and not binding on anyone. The fact is that there is no logical reason Kennedy or any supporter of this decision can offer as to why polygamy, polyandry or polyamory should not also be constitutionally protected for those who wish to practice it, nor incest for consenting adults. There is a father and daughter in Kentucky, for example, currently incarcerated, as they – both consenting adults – have sired several offspring together. ACLU, where are you? Why can’t they express their love for each other as well, or must they too be victimized by such obsolete Biblical inhibitions?

Even further afield, those who object that bestiality should remain illegal because it does not involve two consenting adults seem to miss the point that one can slaughter an animal without the animal’s consent. Surely if slaughter is permissible, a romantic evening together –steak dinner by candlelight followed perhaps by some dancing – should not be the subject of state action.

That is a joke (I think) – and of course this is not meant to equate all sexual sins – but what is no joking matter is the threat to religious liberty posed by this decision. All of Kennedy’s protestations notwithstanding, people of faith – people who believe in G-d’s Bible and its objective moral laws and attempt to incorporate those laws in their daily lives – will suffer as a result of this decision. Wait – it won’t be that long – for a same sex couple to demand their right to hold their wedding in a church or synagogue. A refusal will result in prosecution, lawsuits and/or loss of tax exempt status. Wait – perhaps a little longer – for a rabbi, priest or minister to be sued for refusing to officiate at a same sex wedding. The homosexual lobby masterfully (and disingenuously) conflated same sex marriage with interracial marriage; consequently, religious institutions or individuals that continue to object to same sex marriage will be no better than racists. Recall that Bob Jones University lost its tax exempt status in 1983 because its policies banned interracial dating (it rescinded the policy in 2000). Get ready, people of faith. Our heads are now on the chopping block.

That is the invariable next step now that individuals have already lost their religious liberties and rights of conscience. The Mozilla CEO was hounded out of his position because he contributed to a ballot initiative in California that – successfully but now futilely – opposed same sex marriage. Bakers, caterers, photographers, and florists have all refused to lend their personal services to same sex weddings on grounds of religious conscience, have all been sued, and have all lost. A New Jersey church refused to allow its beach front property to be used for a same sex wedding, was sued and lost. A couple in northern New York was sued and fined $13,000 for refusing to rent their farm for a same sex wedding. To top it off – right out of the playbook of North Korea and Communist China – that couple was ordered by the court to undergo sensitivity training in order to regain the good graces of civilized society. The Communists always called those facilities “re-indoctrination camps.” Such is the new America, land of the unfree and home of the depraved.

And here’s the secular danger to the decision: it will result in the collapse of the family, already under siege in this hedonistic society. American youth, already bedeviled by gender confusion and late to marry, if at all, will grow up in a society in which there is no preferred family structure – no vision of an ideal family unit that has the best chance of rearing healthy, well-grounded, and productive children. The radical homosexual activists would have us believe that it does not matter whether one is raised by a mother and father, two mothers, two fathers, one mother, one father, or any other permutation thereof. But, of course, it does, and G-d – and common sense – teaches us otherwise.

Do not believe any study that claims that it doesn’t matter; all purported studies will be politicized, fabricated and dishonest. Indeed, this process has been fraught with such studies. One much ballyhooed study was recently exposed as a fraud. The WSJ two weeks ago reported the following: A UCLA graduate student, one Michael LaCour, released a study last year entitled “When Contact Changes Minds,” which claimed that people’s opinions on same sex marriage dramatically shifted when they were visited by homosexual activists. Opponents were converted into supporters after one twenty minute conversation. Only the report was a fake! Others tried to duplicate his results and could not, and now the former student (Princeton revoked its offer to him of a professorship) is claiming that he discarded his raw data. Sure…and that is what passes for “science” today.

The homosexual activists are not seeking equal rights but wish to upend the social order. They don’t want to live and let live, or conscientious objectors would not be pilloried or harassed out of business. (See Jonathan Last’s “You Will Be Assimilated” in the Weekly Standard of June 22, 2015.) It would not be surprising if teaching parts of the Bible will soon be construed as hate speech, if those parts are not altogether excised from the Bible.

This agenda is fueled by a classic tactic of the left in America that has gained traction in last decade: the depiction of any dissenting opinion as “bigotry” and any dissenter as a “bigot” whose views are unworthy of discussion. This is never meant sincerely or earnestly but as a trick intended to stifle debate, as if the public square needs to be sanitized of the arguments of their adversaries. (Read the new “End of Discussion,” by Mary Katherine Ham and Guy Benson.) And this stratagem works! That is why expect it to be used against anyone who rejects the Supreme Court decision and continues to oppose same sex marriage; it is why there has been such relative silence from rabbis and others, with the focus not on the immorality of the decision and its consequences but on the reasonable need to safeguard religious liberties in the wake of such a decision. Good and decent people are afraid of being called bigots.

Of course, there are no greater anti-religious bigots today than the homosexual activists. (Can two play the same game? Probably not!)

There are compelling secular arguments that have been made in the failed attempt to preserve the traditional definition of marriage. (See “What is Marriage” by Girgis, George and Anderson, in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Volume 34.) Marriage is not primarily an emotional union of two people but a bodily union (with an emotional component) that can produce children. An emotional union only is really just a glorified friendship that renders marriage inherently unstable, as friendships come and go. This is already a problem in traditional marriages, as is the tendency to veer away from committed monogamy, but this situation will now be exacerbated. Marriage shapes and is shaped by the cultural cues that are extant; transforming the institution will transform it even for heterosexuals. And, as noted above, traditional marriage also reinforces the ideal of opposite-sex parenting, while same sex marriage threatens the religious freedoms that Americans have long cherished and that have made America unique in the annals of mankind.

The bitterness, acrimony and censorship that the homosexual activists have inserted into this discussion – and with which they prevailed – have already made us more fearful and less free. And if you doubt that, just ask the businesspeople pestered by the new McCarthyites and ask the well meaning people at JONAH as well.

But the moral dimension transcends all. Russell Kirk wrote: “True law necessarily is rooted in ethical assumptions or norms; and those ethical principles are derived, in the beginning at least, from religious

convictions. When the religious understanding, from which a concept of law arose in a culture, has been discarded or denied, the laws may endure for some time, through what sociologists call “cultural lag”; but in the long run, the laws also will be discarded or denied.”    This is precisely what has happened to American society.

It is thus the rampant secularism that has been an affliction since the 1960’s that now defines American society. It accompanies the mindless pursuit of hedonism that in part is also responsible for America’s retreat from global leadership. Relatively few Americans are interested in the critical issues of the age, and of those who are interested many of them are not particularly helpful. All this greases the slippery slope down which the United States is sliding. There is hope for a renaissance, but it is faint and dimming.

The Talmud (Masechet Chulin 92b) states that even the antediluvian degenerates who practiced homosexuality did not go so far as to “write marriage contracts between men.” The familial system set up by G-d establishes opposite sex parents as the natural and most effective people to raise children. Such an arrangement is best for human beings, for children, and the most stable for society. It is normal and proper. But we have long moved past slouching towards Gomorrah and have already lurched past Sodom.

Even worse, there are nominally Orthodox rabbis (even serving nominally Orthodox synagogues, although both designations will have to be revisited in the near future) who celebrated the Court’s decision, one gushing that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Breisheet 2:18; he was likely unaware that G-d then presented the first man with the first woman as a spouse and not with the second man. Sometimes, you just have to read on!). Another opined that Facebook has paskened that homosexuality is now permissible and it doesn’t matter what the rabbis say. Well, actually, it doesn’t matter what he says; but the breathtaking shallowness and intellectual vacuity of some people aspiring to the rabbinate is shameful and alarming. Is ordination of such empty vessels worth anything? Not that I can see.

Personally, I am saddened by anyone who is suffering from these problems, and all the court decisions, parades, weddings and hijinks change nothing. It is important to reiterate that no person should be persecuted, assaulted, bullied, etc. for any reason, and certainly not because of predilections of one sort or another  – nor should people of faith be bullied, assaulted or persecuted for their adherence and commitment to G-d’s immutable law. And we should distinguish – as the Torah does – between sins of the flesh (which reflect human weakness) and sins of the mind, ideological sins that come from a rebellious soul. The latter are far worse. Indeed, it is far worse to deny that the Torah forbids homosexuality than it is to engage in homosexual activity, especially if the latter is performed out of compulsion. We should not deny the sin, nor should we ever celebrate the sin. We should see them as part of the class of sinners, which, unfortunately, to one extent or another, includes all of us.

But civilization will pay a heavy price for this aberrant decision, as other departed civilizations already have.  Those who think that the homosexual activists will rest now that they have won the right to marriage are gravely mistaken. They will continue to press their agenda until all people are forced to consider homosexuality a moral and legitimate expression of human longings, and until all notions of objective, Biblically-based morality are a dead letter. And those who supported the homosexual agenda thinking that it was all about love and freedom and live-and-let-live will soon realize that they have been the greatest victims of consumer fraud.

May G-d have mercy!

Inflection Point

Question: if an Orthodox rabbi does things that are not particularly “Orthodox,” do those actions then become defined as “Orthodox” because he did them or does he cease to be called an “Orthodox” rabbi? The answer is not entirely clear, even if it should be. Some actions are so egregious that the claim to Orthodoxy would seem to lapse, others cross or skirt the line of propriety, and still others are hailed as courageous innovations by many who are not schooled in Torah and Mesorah.

The question is general and I do not suggest that the above applies to Rav Shlomo Riskin, nor that Rav Riskin should be compelled to resign as Chief Rabbi of Efrat. I, for one, did not even know that his position was held pursuant to the authority of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel; I just assumed he served at the deference of his constituents in the city he was instrumental in founding. On the one hand, a retirement of age of 75 seems about right, if only to reinvigorate the rabbinate everywhere with younger blood; on the other hand, Rav Riskin is indefatigable even at 75, with an energy level that dwarfs that of many younger rabbis and he would certainly remain in Efrat whatever the Rabbanut does. I am among a group of numerous rabbis who admire and respect Rav Riskin for his accomplishments, his personality and his midot, all of which have inspired generations of Jews of all backgrounds including Orthodox. And, for sure, I would not want the Rabbanut passing judgment on American rabbis, so I will not pass judgment on their decisions even as I hope that this matter is resolved amicably and with full respect for all concerned.

Truth be told, no rabbi (and I mean, no rabbi,  from the time of Moshe Rabbenu until today) enjoys universal support and approbation. It is the nature of the profession, and Rav Riskin has begun to stake out positions on the leftist wing of Orthodoxy that has riled up many of his erstwhile supporters, some of his own constituents and perhaps even elements of the Chief Rabbinate. I have no inside information, but I can state with some degree of confidence that, in general, religious mavericks play better in the spiritual anarchy that prevails in America than in the more formalized religious establishments that exist in the State of Israel. Israel, after all, is the Jewish state, and providing that designation with substance has been a controversial endeavor since 1948, if not before.

In the United States, where the government stays out of matters of religious doctrine and where – especially today – the ethos is staunchly secular, few people really care (outside the particular denomination in question) what happens, what changes and what stays the same. If Episcopalians ordain women and Catholics do not, it is well understood that Episcopalians perceive themselves as deviating from tradition to promote a modern agenda and Catholics are clinging to their traditional norms. In our world, we have witnessed a steady erosion of commitment to traditional norms under the rubric of “Orthodoxy” and often emanating from putative Orthodox rabbis. The only recourse is censure from Orthodox Jewish organizations but that has been almost non-existent or ineffectual for reasons best known to them. Thus, the American religious environment is much more hospitable to the culture of “each man does what it right in his own eyes.”

Israel is different, for obvious reasons even beyond the integration of religion and state. Take the conversion issue, which allegedly is one dispute the Rabbanut has with Rav Riskin. (He favors the bill granting conversion authority outside the Chief Rabbinate framework to local rabbinical councils.) In Israel, conversion of a foreigner conveys not only Jewish status but also Israeli citizenship. The latter is clearly a valid concern of government even if the former is not. One can understand why conversion carries with it more than the change in personal status that it does, for example, in the United States; in Israel, there is a national dimension as well. The government – and a national entity, like the Rabbanut –

has to be involved and give its approval. And even conversion of those who are already Israeli citizens should not engender two (or more) standards of conversion – those for Israeli citizens and those who are not. The laws of conversion do not sustain such dichotomies. There cannot be one level of kabbalat hamitzvot incumbent on Israeli citizens who wish to convert and a wholly different one that pertains to non-Israeli citizens who wish to convert. Indeed, do not dual standards constitute a violation of tormenting the convert? Unless we just want to convert every Israeli citizen (just try it on the Muslims!) then the criteria for conversion to Judaism must be based on Jewish and Torah constructs and not nationalistic ones, such as IDF service. Many non-Jews also serve in the IDF.

This must remain so if for no other reason than this: I cannot dictate to the State of Israel who can or cannot be an Israeli citizen but I never agreed to delegate to the Knesset of Israel or its Government the authority to determine who is or isn’t Jewish. Those laws were made by Torah and are the province of the Sages – and not even individual Sages, but the consensus of each generation. Otherwise, the conversion anarchy that used to exist in the United States will find its way to Israel’s shores, if it hasn’t already.

No individual rabbi has the authority to unilaterally change the procedures or requirements for conversion or even to rely on minority precedent that has been rejected by generations of Jews, anymore than he can change Shabbat to Sunday for the convenience of his congregants.

So, too, the phenomenon of female clergy is alien to Israeli Orthodox life and is a hard sell, there even more than here. Indeed, its advocates are disproportionately not indigenous Israelis (i.e., they are disproportionately American) and are simply importing the disorder of American Orthodox life to Israel. Many do not know any better than to say “well, if a rabbi endorses it, it must be fine.” That is an error.

To answer the question raised at the outset requires a little history. As noted here in the recent past, we have been down this road before. Most Conservative rabbis in the early years of the movement were in fact Orthodox, both in practice and even in ideology. There was a time – the 1930s, for example – when more YU graduates went directly to JTS than to RIETS for rabbinical training. There were people who straddled the fence and people on both sides of the fence. That almost never happens today because Orthodoxy grew and became more established, but more importantly, the norms of the Torah world became more settled and deviations from those norms were quickly repudiated.

There were Orthodox rabbis who rationalized the absence of a mechitza in shul; did that then make mixed seating an “Orthodox” practice? There were Orthodox rabbis who rationalized appearing bare-headed in public; did that then make bare-headedness an “Orthodox” practice? There were Orthodox rabbis who favored changing the procedures for shechita, permitting kohanim to marry divorcees, allowing women to count for a minyan and using microphones on Shabbat. The list goes on. We have a vast literature, so there are sources for everything, or almost everything. But none of the above became “Orthodox” practice because they were never widely accepted and were indeed widely rejected, notwithstanding the occasional “source” here or there. (Similarly, one can find singular opinions in lower courts in the US that do not become established law or precedent. The “kosher switch” is a good example of something proposed, almost uniformly rejected but will no doubt live on. Many of the rabbis who promoted any of the above eventually dropped out of “Orthodoxy” because the dissonance in their lives was too much and their acceptance of the Mesorah too tenuous. They became the vanguard of the non-Orthodox movements.

To reject “change” is not necessarily a sign of stagnation or even “ultra-Orthodoxy;” it is often just a simple act of faith and a submission to G-d’s will. So, too, the passion for “change” is not always rooted in a pure understanding of Torah; sometimes it is influenced by personalities, pressure and outside (even non-Jewish) stimuli.

We are at an inflection point in Orthodoxy as the desire to dilute the Mesorah – think women rabbis, for one, something that was a hallmark of non-Orthodoxy for 40 years – has enormous media support but less popular support, and certainly no support inside the more populous Haredi world. (Personally I wish they would stop the charade of concocted titles and just call them rabbis; people can then accept it or reject it. I don’t think if Carly Fiorina is elected President she will get a different title than that of her male predecessors.) The female clergy has made inroads in some communities, often less committed to halacha generally, and that is certainly understandable; told that the forbidden is now permitted – in this and other areas – people are naturally drawn to experience the new and exotic. This is a weakness of Modern Orthodoxy, and the relative silence of the modern Orthodox organizations is significant in its own way. Endless discussions, think tanks and competing papers usurp the place of clarity and psak. If a lawyer or doctor was as indecisive, each would lose his clients or patients and rightly so. But life goes on and each organization focuses on what is important to it.

I sincerely hope that Rav Riskin resolves whatever dispute he has with the Rabbanut (or vice versa, although I haven’t read an official word of the Rabbanut at all about this matter) and we see the return of the traditional Rav Riskin who has inspired countless thousands of Jews to a greater love, appreciation and observance of Torah. The Jewish world needs his mentshlichkeit, his passion, his goodness and his Torah. We also need his leadership in preventing Orthodoxy from drifting back into the last century.

 

 

The Torah Imperative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Spirit” of Baseball

Fly over almost any part of America, New Jersey especially, and some of the most ubiquitous man-made landmarks visible from the air are baseball diamonds. Often several side by side, they dot the country and provide a familiar and pleasing landscape. Many will argue the point – because other sports have more viewers – but there is something special about baseball that makes it the national sport.

Are there spiritual dimensions to baseball? Yes, claims John Sexton, long-time president of NYU, professor of comparative religions and author of “Baseball on the Road to God.” Sexton actually teaches a course at NYU on the spirituality of baseball, and his book – despite its somewhat grandiose title – is an elegant, enjoyable read, written with humility and yet packed with insight into the “values” that one can derive from baseball – its sacred spaces and times, its saints and sinners, its miracles (plays or teams), its reverence for the past. There is something about baseball that links generations in ways that other sports do not, with its traditions, continuity and history. Indeed, no sport honors its past heroes with the reverence that baseball does. There is something about baseball that ingrained it in the American psyche, and that in large part is due to the “religious” patterns that one finds in baseball.

Sexton, a practicing Catholic although married to a Jew, is earnest in his efforts to match aspects of baseball to a variety of religions and religious experiences but shortchanges Judaism, and understandably so. He does write eloquently of the famous dilemmas of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax who both eschewed playing on Yom Kippur (although neither went to synagogue, contrary to the rumors believed until today). But the book provoked in me this thought: is there any special Jewish resonance to baseball – any similarities or rhythms that link baseball to Judaism? Yes, several, and they might explain why immigrant Jews were taken with the game, why some prominent Rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva have been big baseball fans (all in the right proportion, of course), and why even today there are more Jews playing professional baseball than playing any other sport.

     The Rhythms of Life. The baseball season very closely parallels the Jewish holiday season. The first holiday of the Jewish year – Pesach – always falls close to Opening Day (one of several baseball “holidays” during the year); this year, Opening Day coincided with Pesach. And the season – both seasons – end around Sukkot, with the World Series indelibly connected for many people to Yom Kippur, and with the lengthening of the baseball season in the last several decades, now coinciding with Sukkot, the holiday described by the Torah as being celebrated “as the year goes out.”

This association transcends mere calendrical coincidence. Pesach, “the festival of spring,” is synonymous with hope, excitement and new beginnings. The connection of spring to redemption could not be clearer: “The buds have appeared on the grounds, the time for song (i.e., the chirping of birds) has come, and the sound of the turtle-dove can be heard in our land” (Shir Hashirim 2:5), all an allegory to the coming redemption. Springtime is the time for redemption – “in Nisan we were redeemed, in Nisan we will be redeemed” (Rosh Hashana 11a).

     L’havdil, but nonetheless, baseball is inherently connected to spring as well. The bitter cold of winter is tempered even knowing that spring training (note the reference to the season; the other major sports do not characterize their practice periods by the season) has started. Sexton quotes the great Rogers Hornsby, he of the highest single season average (.424). Asked how he spends the winter “when there’s no baseball,” Hornsby responded: “I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” That Pesach and baseball are both fixtures of spring is, of course, a coincidence, but in their own ways, evoke similar feelings of anticipation and exhilaration, erasing the gloom of winter, which, for Jews, contains no Biblical festivals at all.

At the other end of the year, the holidays of Tishrei, especially Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, coincide with the end of the baseball season. They (I mean the Jewish High Holidays, not the World Series!) are times for reflection and introspection – necessary for individuals and the world but also for unsuccessful teams – with the days of reckoning, known as the World Series – looming for the successful ones. There is certain wistfulness and tension – even trepidation – that accompany Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as we account for our failures and disappointments, and search for areas that require reflection and improvement. That tension, for sure, is mirrored for the participants in the playoffs and World Series, where one pitch or swing can win eternal fame or infamy for the player. And I know not a few rabbis who refer to their High Holiday sermons as the “World Series,” especially in those communities where even the casual fan (i.e., congregant) attends and is attentive, something that doesn’t always occur the rest of the year.

And with the end of the Series – and Sukkot – there is always a feeling of dejection at the approaching winter. Indeed, the winter sports – two of which, basketball and hockey – now end close to summer (spanning almost three seasons!), in America’s relentless drive to drown its citizens in permanent entertainment and distract them from more worthwhile pursuits (the modern version of Juvenal’s “bread and circuses”). Baseball uncannily parallels the rhythms of the Jewish year. The traditional baseball lament – “Wait till next year” – even finds its counterpart, and coincides, with the wistful yet hope-filled conclusion to Yom Kippur – “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

     Baseball transcends time. Baseball is famous – irritating to some – for being the only major sport that does not have a clock. A baseball game does not end at a specific time; it ends after nine innings if one team has more runs, and indefinitely until one team outscores the other. There are no game clocks that run for 48, 60, or 90 minutes.

Thus, no baseball team can ever run out the clock. Every pitch and every swing – even in a game that is otherwise a hopeless mismatch – counts. A hit is a hit is a hit, and the pitcher cannot hold the ball waiting for time to run out. This was illustrated just a few years ago in the World Series when the Cardinals twice faced elimination in the World Series – they down to their proverbial last strike, and twice (!) – and rallied to win the Series against the Texas Rangers. Life is the same way; every day carries obligations. One cannot simply retire from Torah and abstain from divine service. The obligations are constant and G-d decrees when the “game” ends.

Notice how tefila b’tzibur is analogous to baseball. Prayer is not guided by the clock (although there are certain times when different prayers are mandated – beginning and end times for Kri’at Sh’ma, shacharit, mincha, Maariv, etc.), notwithstanding the many minyanim, especially weekday morning, in which people insist on being finished by a certain time. Tefila, inherently, is the part of the day in which time is irrelevant. We don’t even have a clock in our main Sanctuary (not that that stops people from knowing what time it is); it is just that as the place for prayer is a holy space carved out from a profane world, so too the time for prayer is a holy moment carved out from our mundane day. As we know, there are baseball game played in two hours that are dull, and games that take more than three hours (think some of the Yankee-Red Sox classics of the 2000’s) that are riveting and filled with tension. I would imagine that the same could be true of davening.

Not to force the analogy too much, but one can easily discern the nine inning framework of baseball in the average Shabbat morning service. There are the early innings (Psukei D’Zimra and Shacharit) during which people are finding their way and getting into the service; the middle innings – the weekly Torah reading in which the tone of the service as a formative learning experience is set (isn’t hagbaha the seventh inning stretch? Aren’t gabbaim the coaching staff?); and Musaf, the final tefila, usually reserved for the better baal tefila (the closer?) who is entrusted with presenting the participants with a rousing and inspirational finale. (I haven’t yet figured out how the Rabbi’s sermon fits into this pattern – perhaps the manager’s trips to the mound, sometimes overdone? I assume he has some stirring message to share with his players as the fate of the game is at stake. Maybe not.)

Notice as well that, how, similar to baseball’s efforts to speed up the game (it has gotten much longer in the last two decades, by almost 20-30 minutes, and more than an hour longer than the average game in the 1950’s), there are incessant efforts to speed up the Shabbat service as well, cutting here, pruning there, with some congregations even regulating when different aspects of the service will start according to the ubiquitous and omnipotent clock.

Well, even conceding that good things can also sometimes go on for too long, the over-emphasis on the clock detracts from the tefila – and that’s essentially football or basketball, not baseball. When the congregation tunes out the customary prayers after Musaf, it is essentially running out the clock, and that is most unfortunate. (Better to leave early – a baseball tradition in parts of the country – than to stay and become disruptive!) But there is a pace to davening (and to baseball), one that is not artificially regimented by a clock and that should be maintained. Sometimes the davening can flow smoothly and the service takes two hours or less; other times, there are delays, unforeseen celebrations, additional prayers (construe that as constant pitching changes or runners on base) or a more leisurely tempo that stretches the time to 2.5 hours (hopefully, never longer).

What is most important is that people depart with a sense of satisfaction and contentment, having touched an aspect of existence beyond themselves and come closer to the Source of truth (that’s only tefila, not baseball).

     The contemplated life. Baseball’s pace, unlike the frenzied action in other sports, is geared to enable people to look around, absorb the surroundings, enjoy G-d’s creation of the natural order, talk to other human beings and revel in each interaction. Sometimes our lives move so quickly that we are left gasping to enjoy it. We live in a rush to do whatever and then to do the next thing, and we are scarcely able to derive the full benefit or pleasure from having done even one of them.

There is something about baseball’s pastoral nature that also speaks to the Jewish soul, as opposed to, say, the inherent and brutish violence of football. (George Will once noted that football possesses some of the more execrable aspects of American life – brief spurts of violent interaction, each followed by a committee meeting.) Even the successes in each sport are measured differently: in football one strives to reach the “end zone,” which should be enough to frighten away any sensible person (it has certainty frightened away Jets and Giants for several years now). But in baseball, one who scores comes “home,” to be welcomed by the loving embrace of family and the applause of friends. There is a lyrical quality to the experience. One sets out on a journey, helps others and is reliant on others to help him, and is rewarded by coming home. Rav Soloveitchik envisioned repentance as a similar process – of embarking on an annual journey, being challenged and inspired along the way, and arriving home at year’s end to assess one’s progress.

Certainly one can make too much of this, but Sexton’s book is replete with analyses of human nature and man’s spiritual yearnings that will resonate with the spiritually sensitive, and perhaps even deepen our understanding of faith itself. In his words, “inside the game, the formative material of spirituality can be found .”

And if not, perhaps at least the umpire’s opening shout “play ball” can be replaced by a klop followed by an impassioned “Nu!

Then we would really feel at home.

 

 

Are We Charlie?

A letter writer to the Wall Street Journal wondered if the provocative cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were the American equivalent of “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” and whether the so-called journalists would have been better off desisting from antagonizing the wrong sorts of people.  Before noting the fecklessness of her suggestion, it is always amusing when people misquote Justice Holmes in Schenck v. United States (1919). Holmes actually stated that the First Amendment does not protect “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater,” not merely “shouting fire.” What if the theater, or the world, is on fire? Shouldn’t one then scream “fire” to all assembled and to the heavens?

The writer’s sentiment is drawn directly from the appeasement playbook and never works, but contrast that with the brash but brave declaration of one of the murder victims, the magazine’s former editor, who said two years ago, when he was first pressured by Muslim extremists, that he would “prefer to die on my feet than live on my knees.” (DISCLAIMER! Most Muslims are not extremists or terrorists! I am referring to those who are and their supporters.) It is fairly certain that even in his bravado, and in his worst nightmares, he never anticipated that a massacre such as the one that occurred could ever be perpetrated by fellow human beings on this planet.

But it can. It has too many times in the past, as it will recur – G-d forbid – in the future. The Paris rally that attracted every world leader who recognizes the danger of Islamic terror (and thus not the American President) demonstrated a temporary resolve but the book is open. The dispute over the presence of Israel’s PM Netanyahu and the subsequent invitation to the PA’s president-for-life Mahmoud Abbas (for balance, of course) does not bode well for the future. Abbas?? If Yasser Arafat was the father of international terror, Abbas was its godfather, Arafat’s right hand who was responsible for bankrolling the PLO’s reign of terror and today presides over the PA’s outsourced terror. Abbas?!

That invitation simply means that the countries gathered want to keep Islamic terror outside their borders but are not completely troubled by the terror that persists in Israel. As long as only the canary in the coal mine suffers, those outside the mine can continue to preach caution and restraint to the canary. But it is the same enemy in different guises, and that has not yet penetrated the international consciousness notwithstanding Netanyahu’s repeated efforts at making the equation. Those leaders may yet learn that the methods by which Israel fights terror – and for which Israel has been routinely and hypocritically vilified – are the methods they themselves will deploy in the war against terror – if not even harsher methods and if they choose to wage such a war.

It is interesting that the letter writer’s point of view was embraced in the recent past by both France’s Prime Minister and by the White House, who decried the offense to Muslim sensibilities by the magazine’s constant mockery of Islam. Both governments conceded the right of free speech but urged its judicious and more sensitive use (unlike the auteur of the Mohammed video that was falsely claimed to be the pretext for the Benghazi attack and who now languishes in an American prison). Indeed, although it was unintended, one facet of the writer’s suggestion resonated with me but for a different reason.

Obviously, nothing – NOTHING – justifies the brutal, evil, malicious, hideous attacks in France. Nothing the magazine published deserved death. We need to create a new vocabulary to describe the depths of evil to which the world is now witness, and across the globe, and almost daily. It is always the same; only the venue changes.

Nevertheless, before we all become Charlie, it is worthwhile to state that these were victims, innocent victims whose deaths were repugnant and worthy of condemnation and international protest and action. But we should be able to retain that conclusion and still reflect on another aspect of Western life.

It is not as if Charlie Hebdo was researching cures for cancer or finding new ways to relieve hunger. It is a media organ dedicated to mockery, scorn (especially of religion), and the slaughtering of both sacred cows and the notion of the sacred altogether. The media reports that it is irreverent, vulgar, juvenile and rude, and designed to offend. That business model – and its allure – are worth pondering.

It has become fashionable in liberal societies to mock religion, if only to justify to themselves that there is no objective morality, no real right and wrong, and no ideal lifestyle. Religion – of any sort – places restrictions on the pursuit of one’s fantasies and usually imposes some moral code that guides the adherent’s personal and public behavior. It thereby cuts against the grain of modern life and is a tough sell in the Western world. In some parts of the world – France, in particular, the disdain for organized religion is several centuries old.

But note the self-imposed limitations on publications such as Charlie and its imitators (even in America): would they ever direct their comedy against liberal shibboleths such as abortion rights activists or homosexuals? If they did, they would be construed as purveyors of hate, not satire, and even if they meant what they wrote as satire. The scoffers of religion are considered avant garde and generally lionized by the liberal media. I suppose the reaction depends on whose garde is being gored.

We should be able to mourn their deaths and feel outrage, horror and revulsion at their murder without simultaneously sanctifying or glorifying the practices that, despicably, inspired the monsters that murdered them. Death does not retroactively purify deeds that are impure, even when that death is wholly undeserved. Just because one dies for his beliefs does not mean that those beliefs are admirable; memo to Muslim terrorists.

What should be a civilized person’s understanding of the cherished freedom of speech? There are many free speech absolutists who at least embrace consistency but not always decency and common sense. Certainly, there are restrictions on free speech that we all recognize – libel, obscenity (certainly in public), incitement; many European countries ban the use of Nazi imagery or Holocaust denial. Those are all restrictions on free speech that are plausible and justifiable. On the other side of the coin, as noted here several times, there are places in the US today (college campuses in particular) where certain points of view are denied expression in public or in the classroom, where speakers – right-wing, pro-Israel, Christian, pro-traditional morality and others are not allowed to speak. Their lectures are not just boycotted by protesters – that would be civilized – but disrupted. They are shouted down and their audiences are deprived of the right to hear them. This has gone on for almost thirty years. The tactics of those protesters differ in degree, but not really in kind, from those who attempted in Paris – and will fail across the globe – to suppress the free speech of free people, even scoffers.

How do we censor offensive speech? The way it is done in America by civilized people – through social sanction. It is disgraceful to mock the cherished and valued beliefs that people profess, and decent people choose to disassociate themselves from those who do. (It isn’t hard to distinguish between acts or statements that are objectively repugnant – using icons in lewd and lascivious ways, as has been done in the United States with Christian figures – and mere depictions – such as the drawings of Mohammed – that are forbidden under Islamic law does not bind Westerners and is wrong if meant to ridicule or to be coarse but should never be illegal.  Nor is it reasonable to expect a secular textbook to remove drawings of pigs or dogs so as not to offend children, as Oxford Press has recently done. Nonetheless, an Israeli teen was sent to prison several years ago for distributing a crude Mohammed poster.)

Jewish law discusses extensively the parameters of permissible and impermissible forms of speech, and pious Jews study and try to implement those laws. Satire has its place, but not mean-spirited mockery, derision, the pervasive celebrity gossip that dominates too many people’s waking moments, the public shaming of people, etc. Charlie Hebdo should have the right to publish whatever it wants, but I don’t see how its publication makes the world a better place.

But unlike the letter-writer who admonished the victims for unwittingly provoking their own deaths, from which I strongly dissent, abstaining from ridiculing religions should come from elementary decency, not from fear. There are just certain things that decent people don’t do – in public or in private – because they wish to define themselves and be perceived by others as decent people.

Granted, a call for respect rings hollow now, and Muslims are not sympathetic figures for obvious reasons – the violence, and less obvious ones. Radical Muslims have attacked holy symbols of many religions across the globe – Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and even Sunni or Shi’a shrines, depending on the type of radical doing the damage. Some Muslim writers routinely belittle other religions, and even the Arab press in parts of the Middle East habitually calls Jews the “descendants of apes and pigs.”  It is a little duplicitous, to say the least, for the murderers to claim they are “avenging” alleged insults to the revered figures when they incessantly hurl invective at all other religions. But, despite the agonizing search for motives, terrorists commit their heinous deeds for no reason and every reason. There are very few people in the world who would take a human life because of such an insult, and very few who would want to give up their own life in doing so. The obsession over motive – “what X or Y must have done to deserve it” – is an empty and futile pursuit and ultimately demeaning to all victims of terror.

That is the reality of radical Islamic terror and the malady for which civilized Muslims must find a cure. It is important to add – and especially because of the sensitivity of the sensitive – that a French Muslim police officer was murdered in cold blood outside the Charlie Hebdo offices, reinforcing the sense that those bent on murder and mayhem will commit murder and mayhem regardless of the ethnicity of the victims. And to be eternally honored for the good he did is Lassana Bathily, a Muslim employee at the kosher market who hid several Jews in the freezer and quite possibly saved their lives.

Those who claim to be “Charlie” would do well to use their freedom of speech to elevate and not degrade, to fight evil rather than accommodate it, and to become more fearless and not more fearful. As always, the way nations treat Israel in its current predicament and struggle against terror will go a long way to ascertaining their true position on Arab terror – a global scourge to be fought or a local inflammation best dealt with by keeping it outside their own borders.
It would be a better world if people actually pursued goodness rather than fame or notoriety. The innocent writers and cartoonists who were cruelly gunned down will not soon be forgotten, and rightly so. We should also bear in mind that just because something is legal does not mean it should be pursued. Man has a higher calling that emanates from the “image of G-d” that gives him life, and gives that life meaning.

Fear and Courage

It is hard to deny that fear pervades much of the civilized world these days, fear in a variety of forms. There is fear of terror, fear of violence, fear of driving on certain roads or visiting particular neighborhoods, fears stoked by the sense that Western political leaders have no answers, fears of the outsized reach of dictators as evinced by the recent contretemps involving North Korea, Sony, and the awkward release of a movie comedy,  and even fear of repercussions – public ridicule and the like – for saying the “wrong” thing, using politically incorrect language, or otherwise not toeing the ideological line imposed by elite thinkers.

There is a sense that matters are escalating out of control across much of the world, that the civilized world is in the gun sights of the evildoers, and that – as an older and wiser person suggested to me last week – the malevolent forces are unstoppable.

That attitude, while plausible, has engendered a world of fearful people and that is an unhealthy development for two reasons: it robs life of its vitality and purpose and it only further encourages the evildoers. When FDR said at his first inaugural, in the throes of the Great Depression, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (a late addition to the text, and apparently borrowed and paraphrased from an advertising slogan), he knew exactly of what he was speaking.

The Talmud (Berachot 60a) relates that a disciple of Rabbi Yishmael was walking in the market of Zion, and the teacher saw that his student looked petrified. Rabbi Yishmael said to him, “you are a sinner, because the verse in Yeshayahu (33:14) reads, ‘the sinners were afraid in Zion.’” The disciple countered, “but doesn’t Scripture (Mishlei 28:14) also teach, “Fortunate is the one who is always afraid”? There is a value in being fearful! It keeps one alert and vigilant to all dangers, physical and spiritual.

Rabbi Yishmael explained that the latter verse – extolling the virtues of fear – relates only to Torah matters. We should be afraid of forgetting our knowledge, so that we will review our studies constantly. Similarly, we should be afraid of sin, so as to make us more attentive to our temptations, shortcomings – and strengths.

Rav Shlomo Aviner commented that the only true fear we should ever have is about our status before G-d. All other fears are a frivolous waste of energy, especially fears of human beings and their evil. This echoes something that Rav Soloveitchik wrote – the one fear (of G-d) should overwhelm any other fear that a person has. Consequently, those other fears become trivial, and succumbing to those fears betrays a lack of faith.

While in exile, fear was always a constant companion of the Jew. “And your life will hang in the balance. You will be frightened night and day and not be sure of your life” (Devarim 28:66). It is a measure of the unprecedented safety that Jews have felt in the United States in the last half-century that we are markedly uneasy with even the slightest threats, however vague, to our well-being. It is not like that elsewhere in the world – where threats are real and palpable – and not even in Israel today where, notwithstanding the statistical improbability of being attacked by terrorists, there is a foreboding sense that any driver/shopper/pedestrian can encounter stoners, shooters and worse, not to mention the threat of war on the northern and southern borders.

And, of course, the situation in America can change on a dime if too much deference is paid to anti-social forces or purveyors of terror. No geo-political situation is permanent.

That is why even in Israel caution rather than fear is warranted, and the same could be said for here as well. Certainly, the Torah has promised tranquility to the Jews dwelling in Zion, even if that serenity is conditioned on good behavior and rational, Torah-based responses to one’s enemies. If we are neglectful on either front, then evil will gain the upper hand, as it has several times in the past. But the capability of feeling serene and unruffled even amid occasional chaos is a gift to Jews in Israel and elsewhere. But it has to be embraced and not neglected.

The backlash by the American public – demanding to see (what is by many accounts) a bad movie – is a constructive response to the spinelessness that has afflicted much of the Western leadership in recent years. Perhaps it will serve as a wakeup call because decision-making by fear and the coddling of bullies is not restricted to the film industry.

We have grown accustomed to the sight of rioters having their way, unchecked and unrestrained. Whether their grievances are legitimate or illegitimate is not relevant; no grievance gives anyone the right to rampage, run amok, burn down the buildings and loot the property of innocent third parties. Yet, America has been treated to that sight several times in the last few months. Mobs are allowed to vent – at the expense of the innocent – out of fear that the violence will be worse if the looters are challenged, thwarted or arrested. But such reticence is a victory for the bullies over the civilized.

Whenever Israeli soldiers run from Arab rioters who are throwing stones, burning tires or otherwise causing mayhem – most recently in Jerusalem itself – it only emboldens the perpetrators of violence, and leaves the good people wondering to whom they can turn for protection and justice. Something is wrong with all those pictures.

Free speech is a casualty of fear. Truth is a casualty of fear. Suppressing an articulation of one’s values is a casualty of fear. Even the right of self-defense can be a casualty of fear. Those casualties take a very high toll, not in life but in self-confidence and personal happiness and on the norms of civilization.

On college and graduate school campuses across America, there are certain words that can no longer be uttered and certain opinions that are deemed unacceptable for discussion (whether pro-life, pro-gun, pro-death penalty, pro-Israel, etc., depending on the campus and on the professor). The WSJ recently noted that a law professor was asked by some tender students not to use the word “violate” in class (as in, “said conduct violates the law”) because the word “violate” also connotes, to some, a sexual assault, and therefore might cause pain to some of the listeners. This strikes me as not normal, as there will always be some person taking offense for anything said by anyone. It is as if some people demand a guarantee that they will pass through life never being offended by anyone, or else. Or else… what?

One of the worst fates a person can suffer today – in certain circles – is being branded a racist, sexist, homophobe, Islamophobe, etc. Proof and evidence are superfluous; the indictment itself is tantamount to a conviction. These are bullets fired recklessly that bring some political or social gain to the accuser, and cause people to bite their tongues when they should be speaking out. By contrast, some accusations don’t matter. Accusing someone of being anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-white, anti-American, etc. simply carries no weight; they are blanks that are fired, make noise but have no consequences except for the intimidation of members of the besieged groups.

The only way to reverse the trend is to live without fear and speak freely – of course, without giving needless offense to anyone – but fearlessly and freely nonetheless. To allow unlimited rights to intimidators and fewer rights to the intimidated is not a recipe for societal harmony or the triumph of justice.

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote that “courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier.”

It is a lesson that the Western world needs to re-learn and that Jews in particular forget at our peril. Ultimately, that courage comes naturally to people of faith. It is the message that we reinforce to ourselves when we conclude the reading of each book of the Torah – “be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!” – and the mandate given us by Yehoshua when we first entered the land of Israel: “Chazak ve’ematz – be strong and courageous!”

It will work as well today as it did then.

 

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.