Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

Ten Years Later

Here in Israel, confrontations between the authorities and settlers of the land of Israel have again heated up this week, with scenes  of destroyed Jewish homes conjuring up painful images from the past. Ten years after the expulsion of thousands of Jews from Gaza and the northern Shomron, the destruction of their homes and the resultant vulnerability of Jews throughout most of Israel, it is hard for any reasonable person to claim that the Expulsion was not a colossal mistake, a national humiliation, and an historic blunder that political scientists will ponder for generations. The entire rationale for the Expulsion collapsed within months of its execution, and with the perspective of a decade, it is clear that none of the justifications for expelling Jews from their homes and renouncing Jewish sovereignty over part of the land of Israel were valid. None of the purported goals were achieved.

The security situation has obviously deteriorated. More Israelis have been killed in Gaza in the last ten years – without any Jews even living there – than were killed in the ten years preceding the Expulsion. Surrender of that land to a terror entity resulted – as predicted – in Gaza becoming a base for terror operations against Israel, with thousands of rockets falling on surrounding communities (and some landing as far as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Airport). Despite the claims made prior to the Expulsion, Israel has not been able to easily return to halt the rocket terror, to pre-empt any attacks, and to thwart terrorist acts. Israel struggles even to keep out deadlier rockets, missiles and weaponry from Gaza.

Israel has had to fight three major battles, all costlier in the number of casualties because of the difficulty of re-entry. Rather than launch its operations as it did before 2005 from the settlements and bases within Gaza, Israel has several times risked its soldiers’ lives by even venturing 100 meters into Gaza. The entire border seems to be one minefield, with booby-trapped homes, roads and buildings – not to mention the tunnels that Hamas has dug into Israel for the purpose of perpetrating terror in the future with many of those tunnels still undiscovered.

Rather than make the IDF’s job easier by shortening its defensive lines, it has complicated the task of defending Israel’s borders against the terrorists. The proof rests in the hundreds of casualties sustained to date defending southern Israel against the Gazan marauders. Just last week, General Yair Naveh (who participated in the Expulsion) opined that PM Ariel Sharon did not consult the IDF General Staff, which, he says, was largely opposed to the unilateral evacuation of Gaza. Of course, now he says he too was opposed to the Expulsion (that he oversaw) but did not wish to resign over it. He should spare us his commentary, and his revisionism. The Expulsion was a military nightmare.

Similarly, it was claimed that withdrawal from Gaza would be welcomed by the world, who would be so enamored with Israel’s magnanimity and yearning for peace that it would usher in an era of mutual respect and brotherhood. Israel would join the family of nations and be respected and esteemed for its sacrifices for peace.

That hasn’t quite worked out the way it was planned, either. The world community did celebrate Israel’s withdrawal (although, truth be told, the Bush Administration was not thrilled with it, as many foresaw a takeover of Gaza by Hamas and the creation of a new base of terror there; indeed, even ISIS has set up a regional headquarters in Gaza). But the world’s celebration of Israel’s self-inflicted wound was short-lived. Each subsequent incursion into Gaza has provoked the enmity and wrath of the putative celebrants, with persistent accusations of war crimes against any Israeli action in Gaza. The BDS movement was jump-started after the Expulsion, as were the threats of prosecution against Israel’s fighters and the continued efforts of the Palestine Authority to declare statehood through the United Nations. Israel is now perceived as less entitled to any of its land rather than more entitled by virtue of its “flexibility.” Israel is even still widely perceived as an “occupier” of Gaza! No nation has cut Israel any slack for all its sacrifices. The Expulsion was a diplomatic disaster. Those who argue that, well, Israel had to try something just to give its people and others hope are likely the same people who today support the Bad Deal with Iran, because, well, you sometimes just have to try something to give people hope.

Those who rejoiced in no longer having to patrol Gaza must find little comfort in their bomb shelters in Tel Aviv, if they make the association at all. But even that little comfort must dissipate when they reflect that as they attempt to shield themselves from Hamas missiles coming from Gaza, the world still considers Israel the aggressor! Indeed, as too many Israelis perceived Gush Katif as not really the land of Israel and as the subject of an illegal occupation, too many people across the world today have that same attitude…towards Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel, all, to them, illegally occupied land that rightfully belongs to the Palestinians. So rather than buttress Israel’s case for its sovereignty over the land of Israel, the Expulsion from Gaza undermined it, and it will take many more years to recover from that diplomatic and hashkafic debacle.

And the Expulsion was a personal disaster for everyone involved. Obviously the expellees themselves – and many others – never thought it would happen and so were ill-prepared when it did. Many never recovered and of those who did, credit goes less to the Israeli government than to the compassionate hearts of their fellow Jews who held their hands and saw to it – as best possible – that they should be able to get back on their feet.

But it is astonishing – and eerie, controversial and unsettling –to examine the fate of the individuals responsible for the Expulsion, especially the political and military leaders who perpetrated. The issue itself has engendered much discussion in Israel, although many have been aware of it for years. The strangest things have happened to those leaders, as will be detailed below.

A recent edition of the Israeli weekly Besheva discussed this state of affairs and engenders these questions: Do we believe that G-d punishes wrongdoers before our eyes to clarify for all what is right and wrong? Can we deduce from the fates of these leaders that Heaven did not support their activities? Is there Justice and is there a Judge?

Rav Dov Lior, recently retired Rav of the Holy City of Hevron, stated unequivocally that we are both allowed and mandated to draw conclusions. He cites the Rambam (Hilchot Taanit 1:3) that when troubles befall any person, he has to first examine his deeds and not attribute his travails to coincidence or randomness. “Whoever harms the settlement of Jews in the land of Israel is punished in this world,” said Rav Lior, “just like the biblical spies were.”  Strong words, for sure.

Rav David Stav, head of Tzohar, perceives this matter differently. Discerning G-d’s calculations might be true but it is also very seductive and misleading. The price to be paid for this approach is that a lack of punishment of one whom we presume to be wicked should therefore be perceived as a vindication or justification for his actions. Someone who does something and is not punished for it could then argue that what he did was right. “Shall we then intrude into G-d’s calculations?”

Which approach is correct? Both? Neither? Is the subject matter fraught with arrogance and insensitivity but also possibly with heresy and sacrilege?

Consider the fates of just some of the perpetrators of the Expulsion from Gaza, as noted in Besheva:

Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister who concocted this scheme, was felled by a stroke less than six months after the Expulsion. He never recovered, and spent the last eight years of his life in “exile,” literally suspended between heaven and earth, between the living and the dead.

Moshe Katzav, the President of Israel at the time, was soon thereafter convicted of rape and still sits in prison.

Then Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert left office in disgrace after his failed leadership during the Second Lebanon War, and now stands convicted of multiple counts of bribery and fraud. He awaits his own prison term.

Omri Sharon, Sharon’s son who formulated the plan together with his father, went to prison for bribery.

Omri Bar Lev, the police commander who led the evacuation? His own house collapsed. Literally. Just collapsed.

Nisso Shacham, a police commander who was caught on camera acting in a vulgar and brutal manner as he expelled Jews from their home, rose to become the commander of the Jerusalem District and then was relieved of his post while facing accusations of multiple rapes and sexual abuse.

Moshe Karadi, Inspector-General of the Police, was dismissed for negligence and incompetence involving the investigation of an unrelated police scandal.

There are even others who participated in the dismemberment of Jews from their homes and who have suffered unusual fates. Conversely, Moshe Yaalon, who opposed the Expulsion as Chief of Staff and was not re-appointed by Sharon, today serves as Minister of Defense. One other prominent Likudnik who resigned from the Sharon government because of his (late, but nonetheless overt) opposition to the Expulsion is Binyamin Netanyahu, now in the seventh year of his second tenure as Prime Minister.

Undoubtedly, there are others who participated in the Expulsion who have not been “punished;” perhaps they have other good deeds to their credit.

How should we approach such a delicate subject? I tend to fall on Rav Stav’s side of the fence here and do not presume to understand how G-d runs His world and executes His justice, and certainly not to see cause and effect in the lives of individuals. It is dangerous, and does engender a slippery slope. It is not too distant from these speculations to concluding that someone suffered a tragedy because a Mezuzah was found to be invalid or some such other facile answer. On the other hand, how can we completely discount G-d’s hand in human affairs? That too would be heretical.

It’s a paradox. To ignore or dismiss these strange happenings is close to denying Providence; to render definitive conclusions is haughty and presumes to know G-d’s will. For sure, one who experiences suffering should first examine his own deeds (Masechet Berachot 5a), which is not the same as examining someone else’s deeds as the cause of their suffering.

In any event, it should give us pause to reflect, to think and to wonder – and to pray that the Jewish people never have to witness the forced expulsion of Jews from our ancestral homeland and the surrender of Jewish sovereignty to our enemies. The scenes this week from Bet El are discouraging. Nevertheless, may we all learn from our mistakes and together strengthen the people of Israel in the struggles ahead against real enemies.

Our Generation’s Mechitza

Has Modern Orthodoxy lost its way?

We can’t begin to answer that question without a working definition of Modern Orthodoxy, something that seems to bewilder many people. I have always embraced the definition suggested by my teacher, Rav Aharon Rakeffet, shlit”a, that a Modern Orthodox Jew is “a Torah Jew in a Western milieu.” That seems about right, because the cornerstone – the foundation – must always be the Torah. The Torah Jew in a Western milieu will encounter challenges that he simply would not meet and require applications that would not be necessary in a more cloistered environment.

To read some of the reactions of the fringe Orthodox left – if they are even still part of the Torah world – to the Supreme Court’s recognition of same sex marriage is to conclude inevitably that a certain wing of Modern Orthodoxy has fallen out of the skies. Suggestions abound that as a result of the new ruling the Torah must change, that Torah Jews must accept this decision or be adjudged guilty of some unspecified moral outrage, that failure to embrace the homosexual agenda will lead to mass defections from Torah, that this sin is different from all other sins because it is popular in the circles of elitist opinion makers, that we should abandon our propagation of the seven Noachide laws, etc.  Really? It is fair to ask: Who are these people? Do they think that they are the very first generation of Jews that ever faced a conflict between the Torah and some “modern” value? Remember that ancient Greek and ancient Roman values were quite “modern” in ancient times. Indeed, every generation has faced a divergence between Torah values and some contemporary norm, otherwise there wouldn’t be a need for the Torah and surrender to the will of G-d would be superfluous.

The grave error they make is in perceiving modernity as the anchor – the pillar around which the Torah has to be manipulated and reformed. To put it in our language, modernity to them is the ikar (essence) and the Torah is tafel (secondary), G-d forbid.  Those attitudes give Modern Orthodoxy a bad name, and any Torah Jew would be justified in rejecting it.

There is another issue, however, that has drawn much attention and has emerged as the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable interpretations of Modern Orthodoxy, and that is the matter of women’s ordination. Jewish and general newspapers are inundated on a weekly basis with reports of new ordinations, new hiring, and new candidates. It is as if a PR firm recommended that advocates flood the print media as often as possible – daily? –to give the impression that this phenomenon is growing in acceptance, is normative, and opposed only by a handful of sexist troglodytes who have moved to the extreme right where they belong and are best forgotten.

Far from it.

The inadmissibility of female ordination needs no prolonged discussion. (I’ve written extensively on it, including here .) It was so obvious to Professor Shaul Lieberman z”l of the Jewish Theological Seminary that he dismissed it 35 years ago as “a joke and mockery.” Orthodox Jews across the spectrum rejected it as heretical when Reform Judaism and then Conservative Judaism introduced women rabbis a few decades ago.  The title doesn’t matter, and too much time has been wasted creating and then arguing over various acronyms that all purport to do the same thing but, to some, in more palatable ways. I prefer honesty – truth in advertising. It is what it is. Let’s deal with it.

What is truly astonishing – even eerie – are the similarities between the intramural war over women’s ordination currently on the agenda and the battles over mechitza that were waged a century and then a half-century ago. It is no coincidence that the point of controversy is exactly the same: egalitarianism. It is the contention that men and women are absolutely equal and identical, and any distinctions made by law or custom must be discarded or amended to comply with a modern and progressive world.

Consider: The abolition of mechitza won support because their advocates asserted the need for “religious equality.” The Mechitza was viciously attacked in America by a Reform rabbi who claimed that putting women in a “cage” was an affront to religious equality. There was no reason for Jewish law to treat men and women differently, he opined. The year was 1855. Even he – David Einhorn – did not contemplate a female clergy and it would take another century before the Reform movement was willing to make that leap, also on grounds of religious equality. The same holds true for the ordination of women. It is all about equality.

Consider:  The abolition of mechitza was supported by some genuine talmidei chachamim, some of whom wrote learned treatises purporting to explain how the presence of a mechitza, while preferred, is not imperative. The same holds true for the ordination of women, except for the irony that there are more sources in halachic literature that preclude women rabbis than there are that mandate a mechitza in a shul, which, in fact, is not even mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch. There were proponents of mixed seating, but their view did not prevail over time as it was a minority and unpersuasive view. No one thought to say “eilu v’eilu.”

Consider: Many wonderful Orthodox rabbis served for decades in congregations without mechitzot, and other great – even legendary – rabbis took down their mechitzot for the Yamim Noraim in order to accommodate the larger crowds in attendance. So, too, there are a few well-known rabbis who have become the advocates for female clergy. Regarding mechitza, some of those older rabbis made their peace with it, and many never did, knew what they were doing was wrong and always longed for the day when mechitzot would again grace their shuls. Why did they allow it?

Consider: The prevailing argument was that the egalitarianism of American society would never tolerate the separate seating of men and women, and it was underscored that women would widely abandon Torah Judaism and stop coming to shul if forced to sit in the aforementioned “cages.” The removal of mechitza was therefore intended to stem the tide of the alleged defection of pious women from Orthodoxy, what we would call today a kiruv move. The exact same reasoning is applied here today – the expressed fear that if women are not ordained they will take their talents to the non-Orthodox movements and the Torah world will suffer a grievous loss. That argument either depreciates the Torah commitment of the modern woman or it is positing that the target audience is influenced more by feminism than it is by the Mesorah.

Consider: There are voices proclaiming that female clergy is by now entrenched in Jewish life because there are a dozen or so ordainees, and the Torah world – even the Modern Orthodox Torah world – has to accept that reality. But in the early 1960’s, there were more than 250 shuls without mechitzot that were members of the Orthodox Union, the OU. More than a half-century later, there is (I think) but one OU shul without a mechitza (a shul “grandfathered” in, literally; “if mixed seating was good enough for my pious grandfather, it’s good enough for me”). Every new shul that applies to the OU must have a mechitza. In the early 1960’s, there were dozens of members of the Rabbinical Council of America, the RCA, who served in shuls with mixed seating. Today there are, to my knowledge, none. (I assume there must be one or two, I just don’t know of any.) Indeed, employment in a mixed seating synagogue is a barrier to membership in the RCA. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, even RIETS dispatched its musmachim – willingly or unwillingly, above the table or beneath the table – to shuls without mechitzot, if only, technically, for brief periods of time. Today, I bet not.

In effect, this breach of Torah norms – the lack of mechitza – was effectively reversed within several decades. For example, some of those OU shuls put in mechitzot and some became members of the now-fading Conservative movement – but at least clarity was obtained and amita shel Torah preserved. It required a change in Jewish culture, a greater assertiveness and self-confidence on the part of Orthodoxy, and a recognition – undoubtedly driven in large part by the Young Israel movement and the more right-wing Torah world that burgeoned after the Holocaust – that we can adhere to Torah norms even in the face of a hostile dominant culture and even if the values of the “modern” world cause a measure of discomfort and dissonance to faithful Torah Jews. So be it. The no-mechitza culture was reversed also because, well, it didn’t work, and too many Jews who rightly perceived it as a compromise with Jewish law continued to compromise themselves completely out of Torah observance.

The same battle is underway today. The ordination of women – so obviously forbidden but deemed necessary because of modernity, egalitarianism, kiruv, compassion, or pressure – is the mechitza of our generation. The traditional Torah world – what we call the “right-wing” world – need not join the battle, except to lend its pressure from the outside, because they do not even hear the clamor. It is the Modern Orthodox world – Torah Jews in a Western milieu – that has to preserve its honor and its fidelity to halacha through a protracted, visible, public and explicit defense of the Mesorah.

That means that the same institutions that waged the battle fifty years ago must redouble their efforts and ensure that this generation of Jews remains committed to Torah. It means that the OU has to clarify to its constituent shuls that hiring women with “ordination” crosses a red line – the equivalent of tearing down the mechitza. It means that the RCA has to firmly and unambiguously renounce the notion of female clergy, and distance itself in one way or another from members who have brazenly breached these norms in their eagerness to expand the role of women in Jewish life or their devotion to Western values – and their conflation with Torah values. It means that the Roshei Yeshiva in RIETS have to impress upon the public and their disciples the gravity of the violation of Torah implicit in the institution of female ordination.

It also means that, sadly but invariably, those groups or individuals that continue to promote the legitimacy of female clergy will have excluded themselves from the Orthodox world, like their predecessors did – some of whom were also very fine people – who were passionate proponents of mixed seating.

This is not the place to discuss appropriate roles for women, something that has already been addressed at length in this forum. The issue here is focused: will the Orthodox rabbinate and lay leadership respond quickly, appropriately and forcefully to the mechitza controversy of our day, or will it wait a long fifty years – like they did with the mechitza issue itself – before regrouping and reasserting the supremacy of Torah over Western values?

If they choose silence – or silent protest, which is tantamount to passive acquiescence – then they will have validated the right-wing Orthodox world’s traditional ambivalence, even iciness, towards Modern Orthodoxy. But if they choose to act, in concert and with the full weight of Torah authority, Mesorah and myriads of ModOs alongside them, they will delineate the appropriate boundaries for the Jew in the Western world and preserve the Torah for generations to come.

My guess is that they – we – will enter the fray, clarify what is acceptable and unacceptable, and join our generation’s battle for Torah, the honor of men and women, and the perpetuation of the Modern Orthodox ideal. Already the major organizations referenced above have a consensus approaching near unanimity that female ordination is an unacceptable breach of the Mesorah and places its proponents outside the Orthodox world. I trust that the coming struggle will respect all personalities but will focus on this critical battle of ideas – ideas that will determine the course of Torah for generations to come.

Disorder in the Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a strange world we live in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May G-d have mercy!

Inflection Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Torah Imperative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Spirit” of Baseball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we would really feel at home.

 

 

Are We Charlie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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