Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

Spell Check

Many young people today have forgotten the art of spelling, if only because easy texting depends on the absence of vowels. And “spell check” (some sophisticated programs were developed here in Israel) enables a youngster to type without regard to proper spelling because misspelled words are automatically corrected. Certainly anyone who rights (!) anything quickly learns the limitations of “spell check,” but I have also learned that transliterating Hebrew words triggers the “spell check” in ways that are humorous, insightful, and occasionally absolutely profound.

For example, my use of Mishpacha (family) was corrected to “mishap ha,” which could occur in families that are careless, or in which one jokester loves to sprinkle the floor with banana peels. Mechutan (the in-laws) became “me human,” a plea for understanding, sensitivity, or at least a request for civilized treatment (fortunately, I have been blessed in that regard). Nefesh (soul) was changed to “necessary,” which is certainly true even if not entirely definitive.

“Spell check” obviously struggles with death. Avelut (mourning) has been transformed into “a rout,” or “a slur.” The former is a prevalent sensation upon the death of a loved one, as the survivors often feel defeated and overwhelmed, and the latter is best omitted from a eulogy. When the nifeteret (deceased woman) became the “niftiest,” it was clear that sometimes the eulogy can write itself.

Theological positions are frequently staked out. Maharat (the woman ordained by the neo-Conservatives) was perceived as a “Maharaja,” a royal position to be sure but not necessarily implying any religious connotation. Conversely, musmachim (men who achieve true rabbinic ordination) became “mustache,” a compromise between the beard favored by most rabbis and the clean-shaven few. Eilu v’eilu (these and these… are the words of the living G-d) is our understanding of a true machloket, a rabbinic dispute in which both sides have halachic validity. But when it is used frivolously, or to justify heretical or unacceptable positions, it metamorphoses into “evil veiled.” That’s not me talking; that’s “spell check.”

I have seen Halacha (Jewish law) become “headache,”which it is to some, sad to say, but to others, it is a “Hibachi,” whose use on Yom Tov has triggered discussions of the appropriate application of Jewish law. The finer points of Halacha often generate Sheilot, some of which are invariably “shallow,” but deserve to be answered anyway. Sometimes the answer is “no,” and the item in question becomes an “issur” (a forbidden substance) with which some people take “issue.” The Shulchan (Aruch) was not the code of Jewish law but a “Sultan,” who was an authority in his own right. And a Korban (offering in the Bet Hamikdash) was actually spelled as “Korean,” many of whom have a real affinity for the Talmud, and probably Seder Kodashim.

Shuls became “ships,” on which those who lose kavana (concentration) can sail during services. That can also happen when the davening (prayer) becomes “deafening,” the bane of many Shuls. But Shuls (obviously a word with diverse meanings) can appeal to our “souls” and also occasionally be a home for “shills.” Shuls should be welcoming to everyone. After all, gerim (converts) are just trying to “get in,” a process that can be “grim” if conversions are sought for the wrong reasons. In a shul populated by misnagdim (who are by no means “misanthropes”), a chasid might feel “chased.” After Shabbat, we say havdala, whether or not we are in “Havana,” but why would we be, especially since Cuba is still not a free society?

I tried to wish everyone bsorot tovot (good tidings) but it went right to the “Baptists.” And just as well. I’m sure I’ve missed dozens of other Spell Check specials. The lesson is that it is hard to keep track of all the subliminal messages we send whenever we put fingers to keyboard.

Hilltop Youth

The Hilltop Youth are the targets de jour, a small group of teenage boys and girls, who have spent the past several years illegally settling various hilltops in Judea and Samaria in order to promote Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel for both religious and political reasons. And, if one believes the media and politico’s reports, they or like-minded young people have been responsible for spontaneous and unprovoked attacks on random Arabs, wanton damage to their property, all culminating in the horrific arson-murder in the village of Duma.

That there is little to no evidence of any of this has not stopped the recriminations, the administrative detentions without charge, and the assaults on their character, if not also their bodies. I have never met even one of them, which qualifies me as much as anyone else to address their situation.

The rise of these youth, assuming for a moment that at least some of the aforementioned allegations are true, is said to reflect a failure of Religious Zionism who have produced such “unruly weeds,” as they have been called. But nothing could be further from the truth. Are any of these young people “Religious Zionists?” Are they disciples of Rav Avraham Kook or his son Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, zt”l? Are they followers of Rav Reines, zt”l? Do they believe in the integration of Torah and the modern state? Are they great Torah scholars? What makes them “Religious Zionists?”

Religious Zionism has been accused for decades by its detractors of an undue focus on Jewish settlement in the heartland of Israel to the exclusion of all other interests of the movement, especially the infusion of Torah values into all aspects of Jewish statehood. I have never found that to be true, but do concede that, but for Religious Zionists, there would be little settlement in Judea and Samaria, and those areas would have likely already been surrendered to Arabs and strengthened their terror state.

It is ironic that accusers of the Hilltop Youth have attached them to Religious Zionism because of only one indicator: they live in the settlements. It is as if the detractors have reduced Religious Zionism to that one dimension – which they in any event despise – and concluded that, ipso facto, they are now exemplars of Religious Zionism. I would urge Religious Zionists to reject the indictment and the label, and certainly to lose the guilt.

Again, assuming the truth of some of the accusations, what would possess youth raised to observe Mitzvot and to love the land of Israel, to commit crimes and oppose the State? (I must confess that the allegations of the authorities that there are groups of young people who are actively planning to overthrow the government and install a monarchy are bizarre, farfetched, unworthy of serious consideration and the type of youthful exuberance that can be found, in analogous context, on American college campuses for the last fifty years.)

Nothing justifies attacks on any innocent person or his property, but we should for a moment consider the world in which these young people were raised. If they are older teens, they grew up during the years of Oslo, with the Arab terror movement growing in strength and confidence. They have not known even a day in which they could ride their highways without fear of stones, Molotov cocktails, or bullets being sent their way. They have been raised with the sad reality that if their parents wish to add a room to the family home, they will be denounced for their efforts by the US State Department and the United Nations, and prevented by their government. If they wish to build a block away, they might provoke a war. They see Arabs building all around them, living without any fear, and they have been made to feel like heroes to many Jews, but like villains and criminals to too many Jews, including officials in the government and those malevolent NGO’s who are funded by European governments and monitor every building block and every field.

They have attended too many funerals of their peers, and heard too many pious, politician speeches praising them, promising more building and more security (always around election time) and seeing none of it. They have witnessed the Arab terrorists who have killed and maimed their families and friends arrested and incarcerated – and then released to commit more acts of terror. They have grown up in an atmosphere of lawlessness – where often he who takes the initiative is rewarded and he who hesitates is lost or dead. They have seen Israeli courts order evictions of their neighbors from land purchased from Arabs with good money, only to have their ownership reversed on the most specious grounds with the money, of course, not returned.

They have seen people on the left take the law into their own hands when it suits them (the original Oslo negotiators were in violation of Israeli law) and they have seen people on the right take the law into their own hands when it suits them. In 1995, no less a personage than Ariel Sharon called on the youth of Judea and Samaria to “take the hilltops,” settle them so that the government cannot surrender that territory to the Arabs (bitterly ironic, in light of what Sharon himself would later do). This wasn’t hidden – Sharon said this in Israel, but I heard it from his own mouth in a lecture he gave in our shul. “Take the hilltops!” And we wonder why there are “Hilltop Youth”?

They have seen their government evict Jews from Gush Katif, and they have seen their government brutally evict their neighbors from Amona and elsewhere. They have been taught how the pre-State underground was lauded and lionized, and how even the Underground from the 1980’s (granted, there is a difference) found support in Israel, even its government and judicial system, and brought a halt of several years to Arab terror. They have seen Arabs burn their fields, steal their crops, and rustle their cattle – with little or no response from their government who fear international condemnation if they arrest Arabs for these “petty crimes.”

They have literally grown up under the gun in an abnormal environment wherein death and mayhem are constant companions, where hundreds have awakened one day as small children to learn that their beloved third or fifth grade teacher was shot and killed overnight by Arab terrorists. And the tears and protestations of their government notwithstanding, the measures that could diminish or end the conflict are not taken. All they hear are words and more words, praised by some for their courage, perseverance and self-sacrifice, as some politicians prefer to kick the can down the road even as others just use their government positions to enrich themselves. And they know there is no hope in sight of anything changing – just more terror, more death, more funerals, more victims, more wounded, more maimed, and more criticism and prattle from their hapless political elders. They have seen their government impotent, for the most part, in the wake of the most recent wave of Arab terror.

Hillel’s astute aphorism is timely: “Do not judge a person until you are in his place” (Avot 2:5).

Being reared in such an unpleasant environment has to take a toll, on both sanity and respect for the law. Frankly, I am surprised that anyone can endure such persistent trauma and remain normal, and gratified beyond words that the “Hilltop Youth” are such a marginal phenomenon. That more than 99% of settler youth are devoted, law-abiding Jews, filled with love of Torah, mitzvot, the land and people of Israel, and permeated with a spirit of self-sacrifice that inspires an entire nation (whether or not that nation realizes or appreciates it) is a tribute to, yes, their parents, teachers, Rabbanim, communities and the true Religious Zionist ethos.

Given all of the above, and lest the reader think that it serves to rationalize alleged bad behavior, it is important to note why the “Hilltop Youth” are wrong if they are committing any crimes at all.

Firstly, assaulting the innocent is a sin, a violation of the Torah which we all cherish. Damaging the property of innocent people is a sin, a violation of the Torah. Anyone who takes the Torah seriously will eschew any sin – and to live in Israel and not take the Torah seriously is a weird contradiction, albeit not an uncommon one. It is easy to observe the laws of the Torah when they do not challenge us; it is much harder when they do challenge us, but that is when the greatness and faith of the Jew is revealed. That is when our free choice comes into play.

Just because the enemy delights in attacking our innocent does not justify violating the Torah and attacking their innocent. We are obligated to punish the guilty – but not the innocent. We are mandated to follow the Torah at all times.

Secondly, attacks on the innocent are immoral. Justice demands that a human being can only be judged for his crimes and his crimes alone. While I do not subscribe to the pap that 99% of the Arabs of Israel are good, decent, law-abiding people (according to an Arab poll publicized by the ZOA, 67% of “Palestinians” support stabbing and murdering Jews!), no person is a legitimate target simply because he/she belongs to an ethnic group. To treat people accordingly is criminal, reprehensible and immoral, and those crimes should be prosecuted in accordance with the law (the law; that means with witnesses and evidence presented in court).

Thirdly, random attacks on Arabs, such as they occur and if they occur, are counterproductive to the cause of Jewish settlement, the justice of our claims to the land of Israel, and even the viability of the State of Israel. The Torah teaches us that the land of Israel is so holy that it cannot tolerate the shedding of innocent blood. We have to maintain a level of morality – even in wartime, and as the Torah prescribes – in order to be worthy of the land of Israel. To attack the innocent like the Cossacks attacked us, if indeed such takes place, undermines our moral right to the land of Israel. Self-control is always needed, and people who lack self-control will often respond viscerally and violently to any provocation. That is neither moral nor wise.

There is lawlessness in the land of Israel, like there is anywhere in the world and at any time in history. The youth can occasionally act lawlessly as the authorities can occasionally act lawlessly. Those who lump together all “Hilltop Youth” as worthy of condemnation, prosecution, or, as one wag put it, “cauterization,” are also responding viscerally and recklessly. That too is wrong. Those who are more outraged by young people singing an idiotic, repugnant song than they are about Arabs stabbing Jews to death should check their values. A little perspective is in order.

Don’t condemn entire groups for the alleged acts of the few. That principle should apply to Jews as well as to Arabs.

 

The “-Ism” Prism

Chanuka is the festival of lights, so it is both natural and paradoxical that the mitzvah of lighting Chanuka candles must ideally take place in the darkness. The lights of Chanuka come to dispel the darkness. But consider the association of Chanuka with darkness; so much of Chanuka revolves around darkness. The Midrash expounds the second verse in the Torah as referring to the four exiles that Jews will endure in our history, the third being the Greek-Syrian exile that ended with the triumph of Chanuka. “And ‘darkness’ – that is the Greek exile that darkened the eyes of Israel with its harsh decrees” (Breisheet Raba 2:4).  And the very form of the mitzvah of Chanuka emphasizes the darkness. When do we light? The Talmud (Masechet Shabbat 21b) states “from the time the sun sets until pedestrian traffic ceases in the market,” further defined “until the Tarmodeans, wood sellers, are no longer walking in public.”

And where do light? Again, from the Talmud, “the mitzvah of the Chanuka candles is to place them out the entrance of one’s home, outside,” where it is dark, facing the public domain. The common custom of lighting inside is a compromise born of misfortune – “in times of danger it suffices to light inside on one’s table.”

Why then is Chanuka a commandment that is celebrated in the dark?

Five times in the last six weeks – and I wasn’t looking for it – I have come across similar statements made by five different individuals, I assume without coordination, all in the nature of: “if Orthodoxy and feminism are incompatible,” or “if Orthodoxy and egalitarianism are incompatible,” then I want nothing to do with Orthodoxy. Or, as one put it, “until I became a feminist, I had no idea that the Torah was so anti-woman.” Or, if the halacha is not changed, and the Mesorah is not flexible enough to accommodate my desires, then I am out. At a certain point I realized – again – how history and especially Jewish history repeats itself, and how time and again Jews lose their way and willfully self-destruct.

We have had many “–isms” threaten our faith over the centuries, beginning with Hellenism in the Chanuka story that swept away most Jews from observance of Torah. There have been other “–isms” even more recently – Socialism, Communism, Zionism, Objectivism, Feminism, Egalitarianism, etc. All have several things in common. They each presented singular overarching theories that to believers will solve all problems that they wish to see solved. And they all have been designated by their Jewish adherents as the “ikkar,” the essence, with the Torah relegated to something “tafel,” secondary. The “–isms” were so intellectually and psychologically dominant that they became (or become) the standard by which Torah is to be judged. And here is the basic rule of Jewish history: whenever the “–isms” became the lodestar, the touchstone, the benchmark by which all else – including the Torah – is measured, Jews were lost to Torah, by the thousands and tens of thousands. It is as if the believers concluded: If the Torah, a mitzvah, a minhag, a Jewish value, or a Jewish idea does not accord with one of the “-isms,” then they must be rejected, for G-d surely did not intend that, if there even is a G-d.

Even worse, the “-isms” became objects of worship, veneration and adoration, even more than the Torah. I once encountered a young person who had rejected the mitzvot and become an objectivist, a follower of the philosopher Ayn Rand who was Jewish herself but non-practicing. Nothing I said could persuade him; some of her ideas made sense, and some were preposterous, but this young person was unmoved, even when I asked if my interlocutor realized that a choice between the Torah of the living G-d and…. Ayn Rand is really no choice at all!  There is nothing to compare! No matter. Rand it was. Whatever becomes the measure of all things – and is not Torah – is a ticket on the slow train to one’s spiritual doom.

And of course, none of the “–isms” are completely negative, otherwise they would not attract thinking Jews. In fact, the opposite is true. Each “-ism” had or has many fine features. Our Sages (Masechet Megila 9b) spoke glowingly of Hellenism: “’Let G-d expand the boundaries of Yefet, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem’- may the beauty of Yefet reside in the tents of Shem,” son of Noach and ancestor of Abraham. There is beauty, harmony, and even nobility in Greek culture, properly indulged and characterized. It can find its place even in the tents of Shem. For a time, our Sages even permitted the Torah to be written in Greek and read in public – the only language afforded such a privilege.

Is there not the kernel of a good idea in Socialism – the democratic control over the means of production? It might not be my cup of tea, but it sounds fair. Only a Jew could have thought of Communism – an end to private ownership, the epitome of the egalitarian society. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Sounds great in theory! Ayn Rand – self-help, self-sufficiency, individual rights, capitalism – wonderful. But it’s not Torah, so it’s flawed. All these doctrines were flawed in theory and practice, but it is not as if there is nothing attractive in them.

And the “-isms” also have in common that each ideology snatched pious Jews away from their faith – beginning with Hellenism (as history records: most Jews became Hellenists – that’s why the Maccabees were a minority in their own land among their own people) to all the modern movements. Socialism, Zionism, and Communism made inroads in every yeshiva in Europe. There were frum Jews – ordained rabbis from the finest yeshivot in Europe – who became staunch Communists and by the time they realized what Communism had in store for Jews, it was too late. There were distinguished, pious Jews who became revolutionaries – for socialism, Communism, against the Czar and others – and relinquished the Torah life as well. All these ideologies, in vastly different ways, were immensely seductive. The temptation to change the world, join the avant garde, and be part of mass international movements was extremely appealing.

Zionism is different in that the core of Zionism always was a Torah concept – the Return to Zion as promised by the Torah and our prophets. But there were many people who threw away Torah for secular Zionism – saying, in effect, “the mitzvot are only necessary for the exile!” – itself an incorrect paraphrase of a point made by the Ramban (Devarim 11:8). Zionist leaders such as Weizmann, Eshkol and too many others all attended Yeshiva in their youth, and gave it up religious observance. They didn’t have to abandon the Torah life; Religious Zionism has demonstrated how one can be an observant Jew and a Zionist. But abandon Torah they did in order to create the “new Jew” who became remarkably like the old Jew who abandoned Torah for other “-isms.” Likewise, there are people who still grievously distort the Torah for anti-Zionism, which is also just another “–ism.”

I fear that the same thing is happening with feminism and egalitarianism. They are also just “-isms,” and each of them also contain some good – equality, fairness, sensitivity, an end to abuse, increased opportunities, etc. But each of them also contains ideas and practices that contradict the Torah as well, and therein lies the danger. The fundamental departure from Torah that characterizes these two “-isms” is the assertion that males and females are the same and therefore men and women are “equal.” Men and women are no more equal than an apple and a tomato can be said to be equal. They have some things in common, some things in which they are distinguished, and different roles (even different brachot). To build an ideology on that proposition is essentially to repeal parts of the Torah, nature and common sense.

Whenever something is designated as a counterforce to Torah, is deemed to be an idea or value that supersedes or transcends Torah, or is perceived as the barometer by which the Torah is to be measured – then you know you are on the wrong track. Whenever any “–ism” comes forward and says, “worship me, the Torah must obey me,” and induces one into thinking that if the Torah cannot be harmonized with the “-ism” then the Torah is flawed, know that you are on the wrong track. Then the person has to have the inner strength and fortitude to say “I may be a Hellenist, Socialist, Zionist, Feminist, Egalitarian, etc. but ‘ahd cahn.’ Only up to here. I can go no further without abandoning what is most precious to me, the Torah and its mitzvot.”

Shlomo, in his wisdom, summarized our obligations: “fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is man in his entirety” (Kohelet 12:13).  Any ideology that takes us away from Mitzvot –  intentionally or unintentionally, permanently or temporarily – is flawed, invalid, and unworthy of a Jew. Those who believe in G-d and His Torah must internalize that our lives will not be measured based on how good Hellenists we were, or Socialists, or Communists, or Feminists or followers of Ayn Rand – but how good and faithful Jews we are. We delude ourselves at our peril into thinking we can have it all and embrace it all and harmonize it all. We can’t. The “-isms” of history swept away countless numbers of Jews; the modern ones still do.

The purpose of Chanuka is to illuminate the darkness outside, not to bring the darkness of the outside into our homes. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe  said the Mitzva of Ner Chanuka was so formulated – light candles in the place of darkness at the time of darkness – “so that we should bring our light into a darkened world,”  until the Tarmodeans – i.e., the mordim, the rebels and revolutionaries, can no longer stand in the public domain.

In times of danger, when the outside world beckons with its temptations and heresies, entices us to look at the world through the prism of an “-ism” and not through the Torah and our Mesorah, and tries to cajole us into making additions, subtractions and amendments to the Torah, then we have to ensure that our homes, our places of holiness, remain pure, and the jug of oil in our hearts is unsullied by alien ideas. We may not be able then to enlighten the world but we can keep our homes and families spiritually safe and secure.

Only then we will again be imbued with G-d’s spirit and worthy of having His presence dwell among us. Only then can we anticipate His protective hand that will shield us from the turmoil and struggles ahead, as He did to our forefathers (and foremothers) in those days in this season.

 

 

“The Eye Sees, The Ear Hears” (Avot 2:1)

A few years ago, one of my congregants told me the following story: while in a supermarket she overheard an exchange between a non-Jewish mother and child. The mother had apparently caught the child attempting to shoplift a candy bar.  She slapped the child’s hand and admonished him severely: “We do not steal!” My congregant anticipated that this moment would be seized by the mother as a wonderful opportunity to broach with her young child the concept of values, morality, and decency. The mother, however, explained to her child: “We do not steal! Don’t you see there are cameras all around the store? If you steal, you will get caught and go to jail. Is that what you want?”

Chalk that up as a missed opportunity. But is this very approach not uncommon in our community, as well?  How often do we communicate that the real crime is not the illicit behavior, but rather getting caught (or worse: the real crime is getting caught and implicating others in order to receive more lenient treatment)?

What the mother neglected to convey was any sense of a higher morality. And what is too often missing from our world is the reality that G-d is watching – that there really is a Master of the Universe who dictated His morality to us, that our personal perfection is measured by our ethical attainments in relation to our fellow man, and that there is reward and punishment for same.

Have we become too “sophisticated” to think in those terms? Is the awareness that “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere” relegated only to songs for children? We might struggle to sense G-d’s presence during tefila, and occasionally succeed, but too often we have left any consciousness of G-d in shul or the Bet Midrash, and His reality is missing from our workplaces and in our dealings with money. Perhaps we were better off when we were less sophisticated, and just lived with emunah peshutah.

An elderly Chafetz Chaim is reported to have been sitting apprehensively, even tormented, and when questioned he explained that he was worried about his final judgment. He noted that having published and sold many books in his lifetime,  perhaps he was culpable for mistakes that he or the proofreader had not caught. Or that the binding on some of the volumes was inferior. “And in Heaven I will be asked how this can possibly be justified. Those book sales were a mikach ta’ut, and I will owe money to people whom I cannot repay. Surely I must recognize that these concerns are not simply scholarly musings about civil law and liabilities, but whether I will have to walk through the fires of Gehinnom because I stole money from another person (Kovetz Maamarim, Rav Elchanan Wasserman, Volume 2, page 76).

It is helpful, although not essential, to anticipate our eventual punishment for sin in such a graphic way. But even short of that, it suffices to recognize the grave harm caused to our quest for moral perfection by our indifference to theft or our lust for other people’s property.  For many people, challenges to their integrity would be rectified upon internalizing “I have set G-d before me always” (Tehillim 16:8) and the application of that formula to our daily lives. One who is constantly aware of G-d’s presence cannot sin. Utilizing tefilla as a vehicle to reconnect with G-d and His moral code – especially Mincha, in the middle of the work day – instead of just perceiving the act of prayer as the fulfillment of an obligation – a verbal quota that must be satisfied daily – could help in this regard. A “shiviti” sign on one’s desk or the study of Torah during breaks might serve as a similar reminders. In Rav Soloveitchik’s formulation, one reciting vidui should pound his chest at “lefanecha,” “for the sin committed before You,” because every sin is a denial that we are in G-d’s presence. That distance from G-d –the chasm brought about through fraudulent conduct – is another form of Gehinnom and can induce even more misbehavior.

“A person is recognized through three things: his cup, his pocket, and his anger”(Eruvin 65b). That is to say, one’s true character emerges firstly when he is under the influence of alcohol, thirdly when his emotions are running wild – and secondly when he is doing business with other people, and whether or not he deals honestly with them. We need to realize that how we treat money, people, businesses, partners, clients, government, investors, employers and employees is also part of our divine service, and perhaps even the defining element of our divine service.

As noted, none of these issues are new to Jewish life. The Talmud teaches that “most people are guilty of theft, a minority is guilty of sexual sins, and everyone succumbs to some form of evil talk” (Bava Batra 165a). Rav Yisrael Salanter perceived in the juxtaposition of the first two transgressions the necessity for similar safeguards. “Just like it is forbidden to seclude oneself with another man’s wife because of a fear of sin, so too it is forbidden to seclude oneself with another man’s money for fear of theft; in fact, it is an even more stringent requirement, as few surrender to sexual immorality but most people are guilty of theft” (Cited in Tenuat Hamussar (Rav Dov Katz), Volume 1, Page 358).

Apparently, Chazal recognized that the temptation to take liberties with someone else’s money – by stealing, cheating, cutting corners, employing shtick and the like – is too great to resist. It is a failing to which the “majority” succumb. That, of course, is meant as a challenge to us and not a rationalization.

If it sounds like the Jewish people could use a renaissance of the Mussar movement (such as the one pioneered by Rav Salanter) in terms of recognizing our obligations in G-d’s world towards Him and towards each other, and in terms of making the reality of G-d a tangible presence in every aspect of our lives – so be it. It is long overdue. Yeshivot must be especially sensitive to teaching Seder Nezikin or Choshen Mishpat and leaving the impression that neither is applicable to modern life but represents an idyllic vision of conduct best suited to angels. Rabbis in shuls should make pursuit of integrity a consistent theme in their drashot and shiurim, and as something realistic and expected and not merely aspirational or the realm of tzadikim. That can only be done by the study of the great mussar works – Chovot Halevavot, Mesilat Yesharim, Orchot Tzadikim, etc.. And something else.

We need to stigmatize criminal or unethical conduct. The offender should feel the disdain of the community, much like the spouse or child abuser is (or should be) scorned. Granted, it is not always simple in practice, as often the spouse and children of the offender are innocent and need public support. But they can be supported financially and/or emotionally without needing to wear ethical blinders or minimizing the gravity of the offense. Ethical lapses that presage a criminal bent – e.g., not paying employees on time – should be pointed out to the offender in a direct way with the expectation that the matter be rectified immediately.

Part of the reason why unethical conduct has not been stigmatized is the execrable correlation in Jewish life of money and honor. Money plays too dominant a role in Jewish life, and gives too much standing to those who donate it. As organizations depend on money as their lifeblood, and as organizations proliferate in Jewish life, more and more attention is paid to who gives and how much, and there is less and less interest in the provenance of that money. We need to end the kesef=kavod equation, even if that is easier said than done. Honor should be bestowed on people who exemplify good values, and not those who merely possess large portfolios.

Additionally, the undue emphasis on results and status rather than process unwittingly (or wittingly?) leads teenagers to conclude that their parents would rather have them cheat their way into the Ivy League than succeed on their own in some lesser academic clime. Parents should impart to children that virtue matters more to them than scholastic or material success. On the other side of the spectrum, parents do a disservice when they choose an educational protocol for their children that leaves them incapable of earning a decent, honest living. Worse, they fulfill the Talmudic injunction: “whoever does not teach his child a profession (or trade) teaches him thievery” (Masechet Kiddushin 29a).

It is simply mindboggling that in part of our world that boasts of its meticulous fidelity to the Torah this mandate is routinely and widely ignored. Parents who do not provide their children with the education or skills needed to support themselves have failed in one of the most essential aspects of parenting.

Modern life has also presented an especially critical dilemma that undoubtedly plays a significant role in much of the low-level deception that occurs in Jewish life. Cheating on taxes is rampant in American life in all sectors of society, attributable to simple greed, discontent with government, and even occasionally the arcana or unfairness of the tax laws. The acquisition of money as a desideratum in its own right, together with the power and prestige that riches often bring to the holder, leads even extraordinarily wealthy people to connive for even more. But in our world, the cost of living a Jewish life is obscenely expensive and also plays a role in inducing moral mischief. We are simply living beyond our means and beyond normalcy. There are families with children in yeshiva elementary and high schools that are paying over six figures in tuition. Few can sustain that. Conversely, those elements of Jewish life that are perceived as “necessities” (clearly, some are but many aren’t) – yeshiva tuition, summer camp, Pesach in a hotel, Yom Tov expenses, clothing, vacations, residence in communities with a crushing real property tax burden, the need to maintain appearances among one’s friends, neighbors and peers, et al – all place tremendous pressure on the bread-winner. In fact, to maintain our lifestyle, being a bread-winner is not enough; one has to own a successful chain of bakeries.

That pressure often eventuates in the corner-cutting that usually heralds some ethical lapse. And so we need to reduce our material footprint in the world. Rav Shlomo Efraim Lunschitz, the Kli Yakar (Devarim 2:3), famously lambasted his generation (16th-17th century Prague) for their materialistic excesses that contributed nothing to their spiritual lives and aroused the jealousy of the non-Jewish world. “Vihamaskilim yavinu likach mussar,” and the intelligent will draw the appropriate lessons from it. Much unethical conduct is prompted by the need to sustain fancy houses, cars, clothing, and vacations – and the image that is engendered by it –with a percentage sliced off for tzedaka as a salve for the conscience and to further bolster that image.

Finally, and this pains me to write, I have heard too often from people that “we are entitled” because of the historical injustices inflicted on the Jewish people. The entitlement mentality currently entices most Americans (there is even a faux legal defense for misconduct termed “affluenza,” a condition which allegedly induces the wealthy and especially their children into risky, self-indulgent and criminal behavior), but has an especially pernicious manifestation for Jews. The argument goes something like this: “They murdered us and plundered our assets during the Holocaust, the Communists cheated, robbed, persecuted and enslaved us. We are entitled. It is payback time.” In other words – if I understand the argument correctly – the historical injustice of the maltreatment of innocent European Jews by Christians and Communists can be (partially) rectified by the deceptions practiced on innocent Americans by American Jews.  The argument is rooted in the considerations that all governments are the same, that the Czar is the Kaiser is the President, that autocratic monarchies are the same as constitutional republics, and – most pertinent – that there is no Torah that governs Jewish conduct. As such, the argument is a moral travesty, notwithstanding that it serves, for some, as a rationalization for misbehavior vis-à-vis one’s obligations towards the general society.

“Every talmid chacham (scholar, and for these purposes it has been observed, all religious Jews qualify as “scholars”) whose inside is not as his outside is not a true scholar… He is even called abominable” (Yoma 72b). Piety cannot be measured in the spheres of public worship or private scholarship while morality in private or money matters is deficient. As the Gemara there continues, it bespeaks a lack of reverence of Heaven, an utter disregard of G-d. “Woe to the … Torah scholars who are engaged in Torah study but have no awe of Heaven…Alas for the one who does not own a courtyard (i.e., has no fear of Heaven) but makes a gate for the courtyard (i.e., Torah study).” For some, the Torah is the elixir of life; for others, it is the drug of death, because its study can cause one to have an inflated sense of self, promote the haughtiness that the rules don’t all apply to him because he has made a unique arrangement with the Creator, and thereby deaden the ethical impulses that Torah study usually animates. Such is the inevitable result of Torah study (and observance of Mitzvot) without Yir’at Shamayim.

The entire Torah system is the vehicle that G-d gave us to perfect our souls and to have us gain eternal life. Money, of all things, can never be allowed to become an impediment to those goals. To avert that personal catastrophe, we must re-stigmatize criminality, take forceful measures to avoid temptation, learn mussar, moderate our materialistic pursuits, decentralize the role of money in Jewish life, shatter the kesef=kavod equation, teach our children that ethical greatness is the accomplishment we most value, eschew the historical rationalizations for misbehavior, and, above all, cultivate a pervasive sense that G-d is watching us. Because He is.

That closeness to G-d will then be the defining element of our Avodat Hashem in all its diverse contexts and foster our natural inclinations for righteousness. And we will yet merit that “the remnant of Israel will not act corruptly nor speak any falsehood…and I will make you into a good name and for praise among all the peoples of the earth” (Tzefania 3:13, 20).

The Interview

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

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

When asked about his Orthodox affiliation, Rabbi Pruzansky replied:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.

1) What is your message of personal responsibility?

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

2) What is the need for self-sufficiency?

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1.       How is the leader to bring national solidarity?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

G-d’s Hand in History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some things never change.

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