Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

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.

Stepping Down

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

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

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

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

    I wish you all continued hatzlacha.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why resign?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t expect a clarification.)    -RSP 

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

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

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

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

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

They should retract and apologize. It is elementary decency.

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

-RSP

The Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystery of the Shofar

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

And Ktiva vachatima tova to all!    – RSP)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shana Tova to all!