Category Archives: Philosophy

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.