Category Archives: Philosophy

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.


Which is the most powerful interest group in the United States today? The NRA lobby? Hardly. It constantly fights pressure from those who wish to emasculate the Second Amendment, and struggles with a negative reputation notwithstanding that it is defending a constitutional right. The Israel lobby? Not at all. It too struggles mightily to dilute the hostility of an unfriendly administration and partially succeeds only because its cause is just, Congress is steadfast, and the American people are largely supportive because of their reflexive understanding of Israel’s plight – made crystal clear by the global explosion of Arab terror in the last 15 years.

The most powerful interest group in America today is the homosexual lobby. It has ridden the twin steeds of “love” and “anti-discrimination” rhetoric to stunning political and legislative success. In a relatively short time – less than two decades – it has gone from decriminalizing its signature act (long banned in most states, with legal prohibitions that were upheld by the US Supreme Court less than 30 years ago!) to dozens of states legalizing same-sex marriage (through legislative acts, and when other state legislatures have stubbornly endorsed traditional marriage, through court action) and with the Supreme Court – again – on the verge of nullifying thousands of years of accepted morality and finding in the Constitution – that most malleable and ethereal document – “rights” to same-sex marriage that heretofore did not exist and still cannot be found.

But not content with those victories – and a simple “live and let live” approach to co-existence with others who don’t share their value system – that lobby is now seeking to impose its vision of morality on all and trample religious rights in the process. That is the back story to last week’s contretemps over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in its various forms. Through a combination of public pressure and protests, and rabid accusations that employ today’s buzzwords of “bigotry,” “intolerance” and “discrimination,” the homosexual lobby has silenced through intimidation all who uphold traditional morality and, indeed, religious people everywhere.

They should look in the mirror, because the real bigots, the really intolerant, and the people who are fostering discrimination in America today are the homosexual rights activists – and their bigotry, intolerance and discrimination are focused on people of faith. They are waging war against liberty, changing the face of America, and making it an unwelcome place for religious people.

It should be possible to respect all people, extend to all people courtesy, dignity and respect, and yet not be expected – or coerced – into endorsing, participating in or legitimizing relationships that people of faith find repugnant and immoral. The cases that have drawn public attention –bakers, florists and photographers who have declined to lend their services to same sex weddings –underscore the decline of personal liberty in America today. And before people of ill will yell “Jim Crow!” I shall explain.

We should be able to distinguish quite readily between the sale of a product and the provision of personal services. As an attorney, I was not obligated to accept every client, and did not accept every client. No person should be coerced to work for someone whose lifestyle, views or activities he finds abhorrent. A videographer who belongs to PETA should not be coerced to film a hunting trip. A bakery in Harlem should not be forced to provide cake to the annual retreat of the KKK with icing that reads “we hate blacks” or something of that sort, notwithstanding the white supremacists’ love of pastries. A shul should not be forced to host a same sex wedding any more that it should be coerced to host an intermarriage. This society is sufficiently diverse that one can find service in any industry of people who are either like-minded or simply care more about expanding their business and serving any potential clients.

A service provider should be able to forfeit the revenue from servicing people whose requests require the provider to compromise his values, violate his beliefs or sin against His Creator. News flash: Tolerance is a two-way street!

Whether or not society as a whole endorses or approves of a particular relationship does not obligate any particular individual or group to similarly approve – and certainly not to mandate their participation.

Personal service – such as a baker, florist, caterer or photographer attending a wedding – is different than the sale of an item in a store. The law should not protect a merchant who refuses to sell a shirt or a coffee to a Jew, black, woman, homosexual, Christian, Muslim, etc. But the law should protect the shirt seller who declines to print on a T-shirt a message that the seller finds offensive. That is when the buyer has to withdraw and find someone else to do it, or do it himself. So, too, the law should allow a business to ban the immodestly dressed, if they so choose, and the offended can take their business elsewhere.

Thus, I would distinguish as well between people walking into a store and buying flowers – no legitimate reason to turn them down – and hiring the services of a florist to come down to a catering establishment to do it herself. The merchant should have the right to politely decline. That is called “mutual respect.” The opposite is called sanctimonious bullying.

So too, the State has the obligation to protect equal access for all to public conveyances, transportation, institutions, buildings, etc. A private club should have the right to admit or exclude whomever it wants. That is the very definition of private, and the accepted notion that a liquor license, for example, makes an establishment a quasi-public place is ludicrous.

On this I concede that I am not in the mainstream. But, in truth, I have no interest or desire in entering a store, facility or country club that doesn’t want me. If a store or country club banned Jews, I would not hesitate to patronize another store or country club. I respect private rights. I would love it if Burger King posted a sign: “We do not sell cheeseburgers to Jews.” Absolutely. I would love it.  And it’s a shame it would never happen.

I subscribe to reverse Marxism. Not Karl, but Groucho, who said “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” Indeed. I don’t care to belong to any club that doesn’t want me as a member. I have no need to prove myself, to impose myself where I am not wanted, and I wonder what insecurities lurk in anyone who would.

What exacerbates the current controversy is – stock in trade of this particular lobby – the utter distortion of the law in question. Primarily, it mandates that the state show a compelling interest in restricting one’s free exercise of his religion. It does not mention homosexuals at all, does not discriminate against anyone, but, in one application, merely gives a merchant who declines to join something he finds offensive to his faith the right to raise his religious beliefs as a defense.  In other words, it doesn’t give him immunity from prosecution or lawsuit; it merely enables him to assert a defense which may or may not be accepted. Frankly, I am wary of having a court determine whose beliefs are genuine and whose are contrived. I would rather that the laws state explicitly that no private citizen can be forced to serve another private citizen against his will. That is the very foundation of personal liberty. What has happened to erode that norm, in addition to fear and intimidation?

Here are the basic questions that today confront American society on this issue: Is opposition to same sex marriage prima facie evidence of bigotry? Can an American today oppose same sex marriage – or choose not to participate in the celebration of one – and not be construed as an evil hater?  The correct answers should be, of course not and of course, but that is not the approach that liberal elites have chosen. They have rather articulated quite forcefully the equation that rejection of same sex marriage on any grounds equals bigotry, racism, Jew-hatred and other such evils. That equation is unconscionable, and should embarrass those who propose it. It is a blatant – but to date, successful – attempt to expunge the Bible, destroy its moral norms, undermine the moral foundations of Western society for millennia, and humiliate people of faith.

It works, and most people have been intimidated into, as they say, “evolving” their morals, which really doesn’t say much for the depth of their faith or their understanding of G-d’s will.

Should the free market reign? That is, the aggrieved homosexuals and their supporters can boycott stores and merchants and Indiana, and the side of traditional morality can boycott companies and Starbucks and Connecticut. We can split ourselves into a society of two or ten groups and just boycott everyone with whom we disagree about anything. There is logic to that.

But how about a more reasonable approach – also known as “live and let live”? I don’t interfere in your private acts and you don’t interfere in mine. I need not know what you do in the privacy of your bedroom to sell you my widgets, and you should have no need to tell me what you do unless I am interested. And let each state choose the moral norms that it wishes to undergird its society. This way we can all get along. That sounds about right.

Morality based on the Bible cannot constitute unjust discrimination, nor is “discrimination” necessarily pejorative. We discriminate when we offer women discounts on drinks at bars. (I’ve only heard about that, never seen it.) We discriminate when we don’t allow ten-year olds to vote or drive. We discriminate when we choose to marry only Jews. We discriminate when we teach our children what is right and wrong, what is moral or immoral. To discriminate – at its root – is to make distinctions, what we call havdala – distinguishing between the holy and the profane, between light and darkness.

It’s not about love. There are a number of different types of “love” that are prohibited by law, such as polygamy and incestuous marriages. “Love” is not a license to do anything and then  demand universal acceptance.

And it’s not about intolerance, unless we are speaking of intolerance of religious people by the new bullies. What the lobby is seeking is not tolerance, as in “live and let live,” but approval, sanction, legitimacy, endorsement, and especially admiration.

They should settle for mutual tolerance, as should we all. They should eschew trampling on the liberty of others and on the holy writ of Bible-believing people. They should not seek to coerce people to do their bidding. To date, the florist and the baker who refused participation in same sex weddings and were sued have both gone out of business.

That is the real disgrace to an America that is barely recognizable anymore.

Shame on all the bullies – the lobby, politicians, media and others.

Ancient Israel was liberated 3327 years ago from the Egyptian house of bondage on this holiday of Pesach.  To force another human being to perform personal services against his/her own will is a form of slavery. Been there, done that. Those days of tyranny are in the past and they should not be resurrected by anyone.

Live and let live.










Cult of Alcohol

The Wall Street Journal ten days ago (February 9, 2013) featured a front page article entitled –“After these Jewish Prayer Services, Things Come ‘To Life’ at Open Bar,” with the sub-heading, “To Woo Worshippers, Synagogues Compete with Food and Booze.” The article was quite expansive about a number of shuls that serve very elaborate feasts every week, with lavish food and abundant drink, like the banquets of Achashveirosh in his time. Why? “In the face of dwindling attendance…the sumptuous food, fine wines and liquors are a way to help draw congregants.” Whatever it takes, I guess. Thousands upon thousands of dollars are spent per week on food and alcohol, with faithful Jews their enthusiastic consumers. No tuition “crisis” there.
In one shul, the rabbi has an “adviser on food and drink.” In another, a dedicated volunteer brings a gigantic bottle of $500 Scotch every Friday afternoon. In still another, the rabbi boasted about the “quality whiskey” served in his community: “the perception is, the more expensive the bottle, the more prestigious the Kiddush.” Not to be outdone, a Conservative rabbinic leader claimed, in essence, that Conservative Jews are just as good (or bad) as the Orthodox. “Finding a really good kiddush – that’s a blood sport in the Jewish community,” he said. At least he had the good sense to decry the “cult of alcohol” that exists in our world. One non-Jewish on-line commentator asked: “Where do I go to convert?”
It is fascinating that not one person I spoke to – within and without our community – was not embarrassed by the article, even people who drink alcohol. Moreover, I know that some of the rabbis quoted were horrified by how they were made to sound, and didn’t quite grasp the gist of where the reporter was going. And it is hard to resist the lure of being quoted in the newspapers, especially prestigious ones.
Rabbi Heshy Weinrib found “very upsetting” the nonstop orgy under the guise of spirituality, and Rabbi Heshy Billet spoke about people in his shul in years past leaving davening to drink, and coming back drunk and loud, and so liquor was banned. Period. Even for Kiddush. The article drily notes: “Some members left in protest.” Big loss, I’m sure. But the most telling statement was by Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis, who said: “Once upon a time, some people went to synagogue to talk to G-d. Nowadays, more and more people come to see their friends. The prayers and sermons are a distraction. Conviviality goes better with a drink.” Is he right? It certainly seems so.
We can yell “Kiddush, Kiddush” as much as we want and think it is somehow rooted in holiness, and exult “l’chaim” and think liquor is really life; we can speak until we are blue in the face about the “mitzvot” we can fulfill with wine and liquor; we can preach about the importance of Kiruv (Jewish outreach) whatever the methodology used – even if underage college students are plied with free liquor to induce them to participate in “Jewish” activities; and we can really believe that what is most critical in shuls is getting bodies into seats and dues being paid. But what is missing from all this is one word –God. Where is G-d in all this? What does any of this have to do with G-d?
This travesty sheds light on verses from the tragic vision of Yeshayahu that have always troubled me: “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? G-d says. I am satiated with ram-offerings and the choicest of fattened animals…” (Yeshayahu 1:11) Traditionally, we understand the problem as insincerity – as bringing offerings in the Temple in a mechanical way, without repentance or genuine commitment. But that is true of the Korban Chatat or asham or even some olot (sin-, trespass-, or ascent-offerings) but what does that have to do with shelamim – with peace-offerings that are brought on festive occasions or as personal expressions of gratitude? There is no repentance or sincerity required for shelamim! So why did the prophet castigate those as well – what he referred to as the “fattened calves”?
The answer is that even shelamim require at least an acknowledgment of G-d and recognition of the holiness of the Temple. Indeed, the Bet HaMikdash also hosted a perpetual feast. Many of the offerings brought had to be consumed pursuant to a rigid system – a day and a night for some, or two days and a night for others. They had to be eaten in the vicinity of the Temple, so, in fact, in the Temple and its environs, people were always eating and drinking. But they came to “seek out G-d’s presence” (Devarim 12:5); to come to the Bet HaMikdash for the purpose of eating and drinking? For that the prophet admonished us in the harshest terms: “Who asked you to come and trample My courtyards?” (Yeshayahu 1:12). Indeed, who asked them to come? Apparently, G-d does not want them there – even for kiruv purposes, even to put bodies in seats, even to attract attention in newspapers. For the end result of such an edifice is churban – destruction. The building does not last, because it does not deserve to last.
King Shlomo stated (Mishlei 15:8) that “the offering of the wicked is an abomination to G-d,” and the Vilna Gaon commented here that “offering” means shelamim, the peace-offering that is purely voluntary and not at all for atonement – and yet it is still an abomination to G-d. But “His desire is the prayer of the upright.” He continued (ibid 15:16): “Even a little done with fear of G-d is better than a great abundance acquired with turmoil and commotion.” That is as true in life as it is for shuls and places of holiness. Quality matters more than quantity.
It is easy to build a shul: it is infinitely more difficult is to do it for the sake of Heaven, to serve only G-d and not man. That is much more complicated. Indeed, all people and all shuls struggle with the dichotomy between what is done and what is done “l’shem shamayim – in honest and heartfelt service of G-d. And all shuls wrestle with the dilemma that Professor Sarna highlighted – how to strike a balance between the people who come to shul to talk to G-d and the people who come to see their friends, between those who see the shul as a place to daven and learn Torah, and those who see it as a social environment in which davening and learning are just two of several possible functions and activities.
All shuls struggle with that, even ours. We don’t always get it right – but I like to think we are more successful than most, in keeping the lid on what is unsavory or at least frivolous and promoting what is most wholesome and virtuous – what enriches the spirit and not the body – even if that will not earn us front-page attention in the Wall Street Journal. The body finds it sustenance out there in the world, but the soul finds its enrichment in here, in the places designated for holiness. That is the uniqueness of a shul that is easily lost amid the cacophony of clinking glasses.
We drive away the divine presence when we sully His holy places and transform them into saloons that host prayer services. But we gain eternity and sanctity, and with it the spread of His presence, by focusing on true service of G-d and surrender to His will.

Ideal v. Practical

(NOTE: In a day or so, I will be leaving for Israel to enjoy a three month Sabbatical, devoted mainly to writing a book on the Jewish ethic of personal responsibility, something of a lost value today. I plan to keep writing here – sorry, David – but more sporadically than usual. – RSP)

The Biblical figure Yitro (Jethro, in English), best known to us as Moshe’s father-in-law, confronted his exalted son-in-law just a short time after he joined the camp of Israel and critiqued his style of leadership (Sh’mot Chapter 18). He saw that Moshe stood alone judging the people from early morning until late night, and admonished him that “you will surely become worn out – you and the people that are with you” (18:18). But surely Moshe, one of the most brilliant individuals to ever walk the planet, could have realized this on his own, so what did Yitro see that Moshe didn’t?
Rav Moshe Gantz, longtime teacher at Yeshivat Shaalvim, explains (in his Pnei Shabbat) that Moshe perceived the world on an ideal plane. He was the only human being ever to speak to G-d face to face, as it were, and therefore saw it as his primary obligation and responsibility to transmit the Torah as he learned it in precisely the same form that he himself has acquired it. As articulate and as intelligent as other intermediaries might be, they could be no substitute for the original, and Moshe had the clearest and most complete understanding of Torah of anyone.
Yitro realized that, but also saw the practical aspects of life. Ideally, Moshe would be the only teacher, but practically – looking at the long-term – it was obvious that Moshe would be wearied by the task to the point of possible collapse. Therefore it would be better to compromise somewhat on the ideal (and appoint officers to assist him in his work) in order to attain what is almost as sublime but is more capable of realization. In the end, G-d Himself agreed with Yitro.
This is a remarkable point that is often lost in the turmoil generated by causes and activism. There are times when choices have to be made between maintaining 100% ideological purity and accomplishing nothing, or compromising on some of the ideal – and achieving perhaps 70-80% of one’s objectives.
The late Robert F. Kennedy once said (quoted in “RFK and His Times,” by Arthur Schlesinger) that “Liberals have a sort of death wish, really wanting to go down in flames. Action or success makes them suspicious, and they almost lose interest. (That’s why Adlai Stevenson is always the second coming – but he never quite accomplishes anything.) They like it much better to have a cause than to have a course of action that’s been successful.”
It is arguable how much today’s liberals would disappoint Bobby Kennedy. Certainly, Bill Clinton learned and implemented the art of compromise. Barack Obama, cut from a different cloth, is more old school – not only failing to seek compromise (not even attempting to reach out to his adversaries) but also consistently impugning his adversaries’ motivation as unprincipled and merely partisan politics (of the sort that he admits practicing when he was briefly in the US Senate). He, too, lives in the world of the “ideal,” even if his ideals are far from those of Moshe, the fawning praise of his acolytes notwithstanding. As an “idealist,” he can afford to speak in platitudes – to talk of ending poverty, ending war, stopping violence, healing the planet, and uprooting meanness – and without having to offer details or even direction. That luxury is gift accorded to him by his adulators. But if the conflict of two wholly different sets of ideals is not resolved through compromise, then stagnation and paralysis result – which is the present state of the American government.
What is more interesting, though, is the Moshe-Yitro dialectic as it relates to our religious world, which also demands a balancing of the ideal and the practical. I have found that parents are a child’s early source of both the ideal – a vision of the lofty standards that Torah asks of us – and the practical – the ways of implementing those values in real life. But as a child matures – and often ventures off to study Torah in Israel or elsewhere – the child’s new teacher (Rebbi) becomes the proponent of the ideal and the parents are left to struggle with what is realistic and often mundane. Thus, Torah teachers largely advocate for intensive and exclusive study of Torah for as long as possible, and then for some point beyond that stage, while parents are forced to raise the uncomfortable but pragmatic issues of career, support, marriage, family, etc. And when parents also value Torah study, as they should, the tension between the two paths can be extreme, as parents try desperately to keep their children somewhat grounded in the “real world” of work whereas the Rebbeim are advocating the maintenance of the idyllic world of pursuit of G-d’s word.
As we see from the Moshe-Yitro debate, both approaches are valid and both need to be accommodated. There is always the possibility that one will become so enamored with the “perfect” world that the inability to realize it will be frustrating and debilitating. It is not unusual that young people back from intensive Torah study in Israel fail to maintain the same rigor in their studies; the transition from one world to the other is incomplete, and the balancing act goes awry. It is, frankly, easier to live in the extremes than in the broad middle, at least for a time.
By the same token, an overemphasis on the practical can leave one without any vision in life at all, without any aspirations for anything grander than a bigger house, car or television set. How depressing is that!
The proper approach is to be inspired by the ideal, but to always seek to realize it or its equivalent in the real world where ideas are tested and values are explored. “If you grasp a lot, you cannot hold it; if you grasp a little, you can hold it” (Rosh Hashana 4b). If you grasp a little, and then a little more, and still more, than soon the ideal is achieved – if not in politics, then at least in the life of the spirit.

The Three-Ply Cord

King Solomon stated in his wisdom “Two are better than one, for they get a greater return for their effort.” But three are even better, “for the three-ply cord is not easily severed” (Kohelet 4:9,12). The Midrash (Kohelet Raba 4) interprets this as applicable to family continuity: “R. Zi’era said that a family of scholars will produce scholars, and a family of Bnai Torah will produce Bnai Torah, and wealth will beget wealth, ‘for the three-ply cord is not easily severed.’” One sage asked: didn’t a well known family lose their wealth? To which R. Zi’era responded: “Did I say ‘the three-ply cord is never severed?’ I said “for the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”  But why should a three-ply cord – tough and durable – ever be severed?

A new unpublished study recently brought to my attention has challenging implications for the Torah world – to wit, that 50% of the graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools are no longer Shabbat or Kashrut observant within two years of their graduation. Another study from last year reported the not-quite-shocking news that 25% of those graduates who attend secular colleges assimilate during college and completely abandon Torah and mitzvot.

Those are frightening statistics that should cause us all to shudder. Perhaps the numbers are less dire than they seem on the surface. For sure, a not-insignificant percentage of students enter those high schools already lacking in Shabbat observance – their families are not observant – and they leave the same way. Other teens already fall off the derech while in high school – a more exacting study would measure their observance level at graduation and then two years later. But, undoubtedly, many slide off the path of Torah as soon as they gain a modicum of autonomy. Just as certain, there are some who return to Torah years later as well.

What are we missing? What are we lacking? What are we failing to provide them after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per child on their Jewish education? What is going wrong? And how can it be rectified?

It needs to be stated that parents who look to blame the schools, the shuls, the youth groups, the Rabbis, the teachers, and/or the greater community are looking in the wrong place. They should start by looking in the mirror. That should be obvious, because parents have the primary obligation of educating their children – “you shall teach [these words] to your children to speak of them…” (Devarim 11:19). Even if parents delegate this task, they still remain primarily responsible. And of course, the general disclaimer always pertains in these matters: there are perfect parents whose kids go off the derech and horrendous parents (absolute scoundrels) whose children are righteous and scholarly. Even such illustrious people as Yitzchak and Rivka produced one of each – a tzadik and a scoundrel. There is no panacea, and we can only talk about the majority. There will always be exceptions.

To me, it all goes back to basics – not just what the parents say, but what parents say and do. The “chut hameshulash” – the “three-ply cord” of our world is Torah study, prayer and Shabbat – and in no particular order. Children who see their parents prioritize shul – not once or twice a week, but every day – see shul as a value. Children who see their parents attend shul once a week and primarily socialize and converse while there see shul as a place to meet their friends. When older, they can just bypass the middleman and just go straight to their friends.

Similarly, children who see parents learning Torah during their leisure time perceive learning as a value. Children whose Shabbat is different than the other days of the week – the Shabbat table is different, the conversation is laden with talk of Torah, ideas, values, and zemirot instead of idle chitchat, sports, and gossip – experience a different Shabbat. It’s just a different day. When Shabbat is not observed as a different day, it stops being a different day.

I have noticed that there are teens who simply do not daven – they will converse the whole time – and invariably they are the children of fathers who themselves don’t stop talking in shul. Children who roam the halls of the synagogue Shabbat morning are invariably the offspring of parents who roam the halls. Like father, like son.

And something else: too many teenagers have absolutely no concept of “Bigdei Shabbat” – the obligation to wear special clothing on Shabbat. I am not even referring to wearing ties and jackets, although that is clearly perceived as dignified dress in America. Many teens come to shul dressed in weekday clothing but even on the lower end of what might be called “school casual.” How do parents not impress on their children from their earliest youth with the idea of “Shabbat clothing?” That is part of what makes Shabbat different. Every child – girl or boy – should have clothing specially designated for Shabbat, ideally a jacket and tie for boys and a nice dress for girls. At age five, I put on a suit and tie for Shabbat, and never looked back. How are children allowed to leave the house on Shabbat as if it is a Sunday – whether it is to attend shul in the morning or meet their friends in the afternoon?

Are we then surprised when Shabbat for them becomes “not Shabbat”? Their whole experience of Shabbat is being told what they can’t do, incarcerated for two hours in the morning in a place where they don’t want to be, to then eat a meal that might be devoid of spiritual substance, the day salvaged only when they meet their friends who have had similar experiences. But if Shabbat is not a different day, then apparently the moment the child gains his independence, or a moment or two after that, his Shabbat becomes Saturday, which, combined with Sunday and Friday night, makes for a long, fun and enjoyable weekend. The fifteen year old who walks around the streets Shabbat afternoon in shorts and sneakers will likely not be observing Shabbat when he is twenty. But no one will make the connection then – so make it now.

“For the three-ply cord is not easily severed.” The three-ply cord of Torah, tefila and Shabbat is not easily undone. The survey is not as surprising as is the persistent reluctance to draw the obvious conclusions and instead cast a wide net looking for the suspects. George Orwell famously wrote that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” The good news is that we need not look very far for solutions. If the parent wants the child to learn Torah, then the parent should learn Torah. If the parent wants the child to daven, then the parent should daven. If the parent wants the child to enjoy Shabbat as a holy, special day, then the parent should make Shabbat into a holy, special day.

Perhaps there is an even more important idea. The Midrash (ibid) also states: “two are better than one – that is, a man and his wife who are better than each alone, but the ‘third cord’ (that fortifies the first two) is G-d who provides them with children.”

Parents have to convey to their children beginning in infancy a sense of G-d’s immanence, a sense of the godly in life, and a Jewish identity that is rooted in the Torah that Moshe commanded us. Children should be inculcated beginning in infancy that what they do matters before G-d, and that mitzvot are not just performances but points of connection to the Creator. When parents enlist G-d in their parenting – not as the Source of all guilt and dire punishment, but as the Source of “the heritage of the congregation of Yaakov,” then “the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”  Anything can happen. There are no guarantees in life, and each person is endowed with free choice. But “the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”

We must reduce our expectations to the simple – what we want for our children, our greatest priority – is the summation of our lives: not that they should necessarily attend Columbia, Harvard or Yale, or become doctors, lawyers, rabbis, or businessmen, but rather “the sum of the matter, when all has been considered, is to fear G-d and keep His commandments…” (Kohelet 12:13). When we speak with pride not of “my son the doctor” or “my daughter the lawyer” but find our true pride in “my son the G-d-fearing Jew” and “my daughter the Shomeret Mitzvot,” then we and they will be prepared for the great era ahead, when G-d’s name will be made great and exalted before the nations.


The Disease of “Me”

A recent juxtaposition of statements made by each of the last two presidents at defining moments of their presidencies is revealing but not surprising. It highlights the death of humility in public life, and perhaps more.

On December 14, 2003, George W. Bush announced to the nation the capture of the brutal Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. He said, in pertinent part (and note the language in bold): “The success of yesterday’s mission is a tribute to our men and women now serving in Iraq. The operation was based on the superb work of intelligence analysts who found the Dictator’s footprints in a vast country. The operation was carried out with skill and precision by a brave fighting force. Our servicemen and women and our coalition allies have faced many dangers in the hunt for members of the fallen regime, and in their effort to bring hope and freedom to the Iraqi people. Their work continues, and so do the risks. Today, on behalf of the nation, I thank the members of our Armed Forces and I congratulate them.

Now contrast that with Barack Obama’s statement upon the killing of Osama bin Laden, announced on May 1, 2011: “And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as I continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network. Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by my intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. Imet repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that I had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.”
If writing two autobiographies before actually accomplishing anything doesn’t do it, Obama here crosses the line that separates puffery from pathology. He did everything but claim to have personally hunted down bin Laden and killed him with his own hands, while simultaneously piloting the helicopter, smoking a cigarette and draining a three-point jump shot.

Certainly, some will speculate as to the mindset of a braggart who is clearly oblivious to how he sounds, assuming he doesn’t himself believe his own hype. Perhaps it stems from his disrupted childhood, growing up with a permanently-absent father and a frequently-absent mother that necessitates this self-flattery. Perhaps it is an unconscious recognition of the dearth of his personal resume, notwithstanding (or maybe the proximate cause of) his election to the presidency. One of my colleagues long ago pointed out Obama’s stubborn resistance to using a railing while descending steps, as if he is immune from mishaps – as if he can’t possibly fall. (Apparently he did stumble once, video suppressed.)

And there’s this, President Obama’s statement last week endorsing homosexual marriage: “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Forget the fact that he’s changed his position several times – pro-same sex marriage in the 1990’s, anti- in the 2000’s, pro- again in the 2010’s – without being seriously questioned about his changes (why was he against it? Why was he for it? What moral compass guides him? Is it crass politics – one wag called it less “evolution” on Obama’s part and more “intelligent design,” an attempt to revive his flagging base. What is it?) Forget the fact that he should have to explain why he would be opposed to two adult brothers marrying, two sisters, a brother and sister, a parent and a child, or why he would oppose polygamy or polyandry – assuming, of course, that the people were all in love and wanted to build a strong family. Forget all that, and ponder this: how is it possible to squeeze four first-person pronouns in one sentence, even conceding his lack of eloquence without a teleprompter?!

Chazal spoke quite harshly about arrogance, in every person but certainly in a leader for whom it invariably leads to failures. “A haughty heart is an abomination of G-d” (Mishlei 16:5). Self-aggrandizement is a sign of weakness and insecurity, not strength. It is unbecoming, and, as is well known, “pride precedes destruction and arrogance comes before failure” (Mishlei 16:18). Rav Hirsch explains that haughty people become overconfident; perhaps they genuinely believe they can control the tides and cool the planet. How will Obama react to defeat – further tear apart the country? Complain bitterly about race and bias? Tie up the country in litigation? He has been remarkably lacking in class, almost unheard of in presidential politics.

The haughty are compared to idolaters and sexual predators (Sotah 4b) and find it difficult to praise others (Zohar). “One coin in a bottle rattles; the bottle filled with coins makes no sound” (Bava Metzia 85b). One whose true virtues are minimal cannot but speak of them at length; a person of genuine greatness sees no need to refer to himself or his achievements. They speak for themselves.
It was Pat Riley who characterized arrogance as “the disease of me,” marked by chronic feelings of under-appreciation and a concomitant focus on the self, and a resentment of the competence and success of others. Bad midot are worse than bad policies, and although only a fool looks to any politician to provide examples of good midot, politicians can have an extraordinary effect on the public culture, for good and for bad. Man’s finest virtue, Rav Moshe ibn Ezra stated, is that of which he is unaware.

Leadership often carries with its feelings of superiority, especially when the leader makes decisions that affect millions of people. It is an occupational hazard. The better ones conceal it under a veneer of humility and graciousness. It makes them personally tolerable, even if their policies are repugnant and risible. Someone should inform the President of this basic truth.

“According to His Will”

     “This is the state of the contemporary Liberal world – the fear of giving offense has been self-inculcated in a group which must, now, consider literally every word and action for potential violation of the New Norms” (David Mamet, in The Secret Knowledge).

     That, as well as anything, explains the recent self-immolation of a colleague on the “Orthodox left” (perhaps, better, “left Orthodoxy”) who demeaned and denounced the daily blessing recited by men thanking G-d for “not having made me a woman” and opined that he has stopped saying it, in breach of a Jewish tradition that is several millennia old. Stealing from the non-Orthodox playbook, he castigated Orthodoxy for its “maltreatment” of women, and our “inherited prejudice that…women possess less innate dignity than men.” He even brazenly declared the blessing a “Desecration of G-d’s Name,” trampling any sense of propriety and humility and demonstrating the ability to leap over the spiritual giants of Jewish life in a single bound – quite a stupendous feat.

    To be sure, the condemnation of his remarks elicited from him a standard (and partial) retraction, apologizing for the stridency of the remarks but not their substance. This is the flip side of a fairly typical liberal criticism, the clichéd “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it,” when, actually it is the substance, often irrefutable, that bothers them. Here, not only was the tone repugnant, but the sentiments were equally abhorrent – and were not only not withdrawn but educed defenders from the “left Orthodoxy” who are adept at finding the one source that seems to support their views (even if it doesn’t) and are blithely contemptuous of Jewish tradition, history, custom and the wisdom of our Sages. It is impossible to read his remarks without sensing that he perceives the Talmudic sages and their spiritual successors down to our day as, G-d forbid, small, bigoted, and immoral people who are his moral inferiors. One wonders why he can respect anything that they say, being so flawed, and why any of his students or congregants should care to study the opinions of those hopeless misogynists. A rabbi must have enormous self-confidence, to say the least, to set himself up as judge and jury over the guardians and transmitters of the divine word, and he must also be inordinately sensitive to feel pain when none is intended.

     Some of my learned colleagues have written eloquent articles about the provenance of this particular blessing, starting with the Yerushalmi (Brachot, Chapter 9) that explains it as referring to man’s obligation in Mitzvot that are numerically greater than those of a woman, a servant and a heathen. (See, e.g., Rav Dov Fischer at Another distinguished colleague wrote beautifully of an encounter with a woman who said that she loved the female version of the blessing – a woman correspondingly recites a blessing thanking G-d “for creating me according to his will.” She understood it as follows: women were the last entity created during the six days of creation, and therefore represented G-d’s special creation – the only entity created perfectly, “according to His will.” It is the man who recites wistfully that G-d did not make him a woman. Not only is that interpretation clever, creative, respectful of Chazal, and reflective of a joy and contentment with life, it also echoes Rav Hirsch’s commentary that women are spiritually superior to males and naturally closer to G-d than men are. I don’t have to agree – I think men and women are spiritually equal before G-d but just given different roles – to respect her satisfaction with her station in life. That is true love of G-d and love of Torah – the exact opposite of the embittered assault on Torah and Orthodoxy (among other sins – batei din, agunot, the lack of female rabbis, etc.) that emanated from the quarters mentioned above. The task of the Rabbi is to teach Torah to the unlearned, not reinforce their basest stereotypes, and one who chooses an interpretation of Chazal’s words that put them in a bad light, as opposed to teaching the many traditional interpretations that are holy and positive, is defining himself and his biases rather than the Torah. Indeed, it is peculiar that a rabbi who claims to be concerned with women’s spiritual dignity would find that dignity not in a uniquely feminine role but in rank mimicry of man’s role.

     We are living through a period of history in which “sensitivity” has become so acute that every word and deed is scrutinized by self-appointed moralists for even the possibility of offense, and in a world in which we try to co-exist with numerous individuals who are always taking offense about something or other. Some people are just thin-skinned, but today there are many who have no skin at all; they are just a bundle of raw nerves, claiming either victimhood or an unrestricted license to protect potential victims as they see it, and using that status as a club with which to beat the less-enlightened who do not share their views. There is little that, read a certain way, does not give offense, so here’s a brief list of blessings that the fastidious might also consider omitting:

     Blessed is Hashem…Hamelamed Torah l’amo Yisrael (who teaches Torah to His peopleIsrael) – might offend the world by singling out the Jewish people for our special relationship with G-d;

 …hamachzir neshamot lifgarim meitim (who restores souls to dead bodies) – might offend those who r”l die in their sleep;

She’lo asani goy (who did not make me a heathen) – might offend non-Jews;

She’lo asani aved (who did not make a slave) – might offend the working man;

 …pokeach ivrim – (who opens the eyes of the blind) – might offend the blind;

 …matir assurim – (who unties the bound) – might offend the incarcerated;
 … zokef kfufim – (who straightens the bent) – might offend the hunchback;

 …she’asa li kol tzarki – (who provides all our needs, i.e., shoes) – will offend Shoeless Joe Jackson;

… hameichin mitzadei gaver (who prepares the steps of man) – might offend the lame;
 …Ozer yisrael bigvura and oter yisrael b’tifara (who girdsIsrael with might, who adornsIsrael with splendor) – really offends non-Jews who apparently were not so blessed with might or splendor;

hanoten laya’ef koach (who gives strength to the weary) – will offend the exhausted who nonetheless wake up every morning;

Yotzer ha’meorot (who formed the luminaries) – offends evolutionists, and sounds too much like the claims of those right-wing creationists.

Habocher b’amo yisrael b’ahava (who chose His people Israel with love) – offends…well, it is obvious. There are many others. It is not that everyone will be offended by everything; it is rather that someone might be offended by some of them, and the sensitivity police will be on the case, poseurs all.

     And, of course, noten Hatorah (who gave us the Torah) – will offend those who do not believe that G-d actually gave us the Torah but assume it is a man-made ball of wax that can be shaped as they wish in order to conform to the prevailing political correctness of every generation.

   But I suppose that is the whole point of this exercise. My colleague prefers to abstain from this blessing citing the Rabbinic dictum “Shev v’al taaseh, adif” (“it is preferable to sit and not do…”) Of course, that dictum is our general recourse when we confront a conflict of laws – when an action will simultaneously fulfill and violate different commandments; it is does not at all relate to a case in which one chooses not to fulfill  mitzva because he has shamefully construed it as a “sin.” And what really is the source of the alleged sin, to add to Mamet’s quotation at the top ?

     One of my distinguished colleagues recently called attention to the introduction of the Steipler Gaon to his work “Chayei Olam.” The Steipler writes that too many Jews are spiritually perplexed – either a consequence of intellectual confusion or uncontrollable desires whetted by what they see in the world around them – and usually because they have gazed in the works of free-thinkers whose words are impure and transmit impurity, and this nonsense is retained in and shapes their minds. And then he writes (translation mine): “It is appropriate to respond to these confused individuals that do they really think that they are the first people ever to have these questions and doubts ? Does it take some genius to be thus confused ? Rather do you not understand that thousands of the giants of Israel in every generation wrestled with every possible question, doubt and angle – and yet their faith remained perfect and complete, in force, and they all served the will of their Creator with fear and reverence because their souls were pure and in the light of their understanding they saw the truth clearly – what is true and what is false and counterfeit… From the simple faith of all our Rabbis, you will be able to understand that for every question and doubt there are clear answers….”

     Part of humility is deference to those whose wisdom, deeds and moral attainments were greater than ours, and teachers of Torah should attempt to inculcate that deference – rather than affect an air of moral superiority. This most recent effort to impose the fleeting morality of modern times on the eternal values of Chazal does more than disparage generations of Jews – men and women – who properly understood the intellectual depth and moral goodness of our Sages; worse, it ordains every individual to pass ultimate judgment on every aspect of the Torah, filtering every detail through a subjective moral code that will differ from person to person. Such lacks more than just humility; it undermines the unity of the Jewish people, our faith in Torah, and our acceptance of the “yoke of the divine kingship.”

      Many have traveled down that road; few have returned. The substance is as shallow as the articulation was disgraceful. Both should be withdrawn, and the honor of our Sages and their formulation of our daily prayers, and the spiritual dignity of men and women, affirmed.