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.

“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 http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2011/08/08/who-hast-not-made-me-a-liberal-rabbi/). 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.

Piety and Dysfunction

     What was most striking about the reaction to last week’s piece on dating, published in the Jewish Press, was not just the chord that it struck with so many people about the miseries of the contemporary dating scene or the incapacities of many men to embrace adulthood but especially the criticism that was rooted in the prevalence of promiscuity in modern life and the methods of preventing its encroachment in our world. As many readers stressed, even casual and public interactions are unavoidable inducements to randy and sinful behavior. Strange as it sounds, the objections challenge – or at least, invert – a statement of Chazal.

    The Gemara (Bava Batra 165a) says, in the name of Rav, that certain sins are hardy perennials that are difficult to suppress: “Most [people are guilty] of theft, a minority of promiscuity, and everyone of slanderous speech,” which the Gemara soon qualifies to mean the “dust of lashon hara” – indirect, disparaging
speech but not overt gossip. (It is safe to say that these days few roll only in the dust of lashon hara.) But what of the Gemara’s assertion that “mi’ut ba’arayot” – only a minority are guilty of sexual misconduct? The overheated rhetoric that came my way seemed to imply – strike that, it was stated explicitly and quite stridently – that if young men and women simply talk to each other, even in public and even in controlled settings, that sin is inevitable for all but the most unresponsive and lifeless among them. How can that be, if the Gemara perceives only a minority as succumbing to these sins?

    Conversely, since the more prevalent danger is theft, why do we not embrace the same restrictions in this area that are suggested in the dating context? Rashbam notes that people are prone, especially in business, to allow themselves leniencies that increase their own profits at the expense of others (known in today’s parlance as shtick). Recall that Rav Yisrael Salanter said famously that just as there is a prohibition to seclude oneself with another’s wife (yichud),
so too there should be a prohibition to seclude oneself with someone else’s money. Reb Yisrael was undoubtedly correct, as always, that the temptation of illicit money exceeds that of lewdness, and yet we have not incorporated the same restrictions: we don’t require two people to work a cash register in a Jewish store, we are not admonished not to enter stores alone lest we shoplift or
remain alone in someone’s living room in the presence of his I-Pod or other desirable devices, nor do we require that young people with uncontrollable lusts for money and no legitimate means of earning it just avoid any contact with it.
Perhaps we should – but we don’t, because erecting limitless fences around sin
does not build character or develop reverence for Heaven. What is does is leave
a person incapable of exercising any self-control the moment one of those
fences collapses.

    Indeed, Chazal did establish one fence regarding relations between unmarried people – the prohibition of seclusion that was decreed by the Sanhedrin of King David in the wake of the Amnon-Tamar episode. Consequently, it is surely forbidden for unmarried people to seclude themselves. But how then is another fence built around the initial fence – a decree added to a decree – that would prohibit even public interactions? Is the world so much different today than it was 50, 100, 500, 1000 or 3000 years ago?

    Yes and no. The world is different in terms of the dissemination of bawdy material and the tawdry imagery that inundates our senses. Modern means of communication has eased transmission of both the holy and the profane. Our eyes and our souls are always at risk whenever we venture out into the world, and even when sometimes we sit at home or in front of a computer. But human nature is the same, and we delude ourselves into thinking that, somehow, today’s young people are more concupiscent than people in ancient, medieval or pre-modern times. That is simply false. People are people and human nature is human nature. (Even the display of raunchy material is nothing new. Visit any art museum – I was at the Louvre in Paris last week – and one realizes that medieval art was almost exclusively either Christian-themed or naked women – and sometimes both, simultaneously. Of course, they called it art, like others term even more salacious material today. Either way, there is not much for a Jew to see. I developed a new appreciation to the genius of Monet, and even Morris Katz.) In the past, the public frowned on debauchery, but that does not mean that its incidence was any less frequent than today.

     Obviously, the Bible has many stories of misconduct between the sexes, and the Torah prohibitions reflect that one’s desires gravitate toward those areas. The Maharal himself was banished from Prague (after his first stint there) because the people resented his carping about one of their prevalent vices – adultery – and this in a community that numbered just several thousand Jews. There is nothing new under the sun. So, knowing what we know, how can Chazal say that just a “minority” are guilty of promiscuity? Would they say the same today? Would Rav amend his statement to read that, today, sadly, “all are guilty
of theft, lechery, and gossip” – in which case, what hope is there for any of
us?

     I conclude that Chazal were correct, and that only a minority of people are guilty of licentiousness. All people are subject to fantasies, even persistent ones, but most do not act upon them. Hirhur (fantasy) is part of the human condition; fleeting thoughts are impossible to inhibit and our obligation as strivers for perfection then becomes uprooting them, not dwelling on them, and becoming involved in some more gainful and productive pursuit. To think that we can eliminate unconscious thoughts reflects an ignorance of human nature, and
Chazal profoundly understood human nature. And to think that we can eliminate sin by supplementing the Torah’s and Chazal’s prohibitions with even more prohibitions is misguided. It simply drives sin underground – to which a
generation of Jews who hide televisions in their closets, or received deliveries of televisions in air-conditioner boxes, or who furtively sit over their computers surfing the internet without a life-preserver can undoubtedly attest. At the end of the day, there is no alternative to self-control, which is a function of reverence of Heaven.

     Human nature is human nature, and no community is immune from sin or devoid of sinners. The Jewish world – right, left, center, Modern, Haredi, yeshivish – has its share of miscreants, pedophiles, thieves, psychos, murderers, adulterers, degenerates, deviants, and those who would expose or cover up those sins and sinners, crimes and criminals. The comfort might be that our numbers are smaller relative to the general population in all these vices, and that lasciviousness is still perceived as aberrational conduct that is not or should not be tolerated in our midst and appropriately shocks us when it does occur. But to think further that there is one foolproof way that works for all – one way to avoid sin or temptation, one way to find a spouse, and one way to have a happy, fulfilling marriage – is delusional.

   There is something else that needs to be said, an outgrowth of some of the responses I received. Fear of sin is a virtue in Jewish life, in a way that it is simply not understood in the rest of the world. We should always be mindful that we can stumble at any time, and therefore always have a conscious awareness of G-d’s presence. But there is a fine line between piety and dysfunction that tends to get blurred. Reading recent accounts of families that segregate the sexes for meals – or families in which brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law do not converse for fear of the “next step” – crosses the line from excessive piety to palpable dysfunction. If we posit that Chazal are correct – and who among us would not? – that only a mi’ut ba’arayot – then we have to accept that self-control and self-discipline are sufficient to allow normal interactions and to restrain, even among the most lustful among us, improper conduct. If not – if one cannot walk the streets or converse or casually interact without harboring persistently impure or libidinous thoughts that coalesce with an uncontrollable urge to lunge at random females, that is dysfunctional, and such a person requires all the safeguards that we can conjure, and even some that we have not yet imagined. But normal people do not require that.

    The bottom line is that one who does not learn self-control before marriage will not learn it after marriage either, and invariably fall into that minority category that Chazal addressed. And one who cannot restrain his passions in any area of life – money or gossip included – will never learn to restrain it until he/she begins a process of teshuva, self-awareness, and discipline. That process is the true perfection of the soul that is a primary purpose of life itself, and
that process must always be informed by the recognition that the ways of Torah
are the “ways of pleasantness,” as well as normalcy.

Dating Self-Help

(This was originally published as an op-ed in the Jewish Press, on July 8, 2011.)

A recent piece posted on Matzav.com signed by “A Crying Bas Yisroel” chillingly lamented the plight of a young single woman, with fine personal qualities but without any family money or yichus, who sits forlornly waiting for her phone to ring with calls from shadchanim. Alas, the phone never rings, and for her, the shidduchsystem is an ongoing nightmare.

     Not coincidentally, but perhaps surprising to some, almost all the weddings I attended this past month were those of couples who had “long-term” relationships. They either met in high school or when high school age, or in Israel or their early college years, and almost all of them met on their own. They did not use shadchanim, but met the old-fashioned way: in healthy social settings where young men and women mingle naturally, without the pressure of “potential spouse” hovering over every encounter. That is not the norm in Jewish life these days, but perhaps it should be.
     That is not to say that the shidduch-system is failed, or failing, or broken. Too many people work too hard on setting up unmarrieds that it would be incorrect and insulting to say that it is broken. So it is not broken – but perhaps it should be a b’diavad (post facto) and not a l’chatchila (ab initio) system. L’chatchila, it would seem, Chazal emphasized that we should find our own mates. The Gemara (Kiddushin 2b) cites the pasuk “When a man takes a woman [in marriage]” and explains “darko shel ish l’chazer al ha-isha,” it is the way of men to pursue women [in marriage]. It is not the way of men, or shouldn’t be, to enlist a band of agents, intermediaries, and attorneys to do the work for them. By infantilizing and emasculating our males, we have complicated a process that should be simpler and made a joyous time into one of relentless anguish and hardship for many women.
    This is reminiscent of the life story of a pathetic man we recently encountered in the weekly Torah reading – Ohn ben Pelet. The Gemara  (Sanhedrin 109b) states that “ishto hitzilato”his wife saved him from the clutches of Korach. Ohn was an original co-conspirator who is not mentioned again after the first verse, because his wife explained to him the foolishness of his conduct (Ohn loses if Moshe wins and gains nothing if Korach prevails), prevented him from joining his fellow conspirators, and, as the Midrash adds, held onto his bed to prevent the ground from swallowing Ohn and then dragged him to Moshe to beg forgiveness. Ohn was a sad excuse of a man.
     Mrs. Ohn, in effect, saved her husband not only from Korach but also from himself. The problem with Ohn is that he perceived himself as an object, and not a subject or an actor. Ohn wasn’t a leader – he was a born follower, just an object for others to use, He just allowed himself to be yanked along by anyone – for evil and for good. He was just part of the crowd, the personification of the personality of weakness, dependence and self-abnegation. He took no responsibility for his own destiny.  An object is a tool of others; a subject is the master of his destiny. In the realm of dating and marriage, we are breeding Ohn’s by the thousands by freeing men from their obligation to pursue their potential spouses, and thereby relegating women to the dependent role of passively waiting to be the chosen one. Why do we do that, and is there a better option ?
    Some will argue that the shidduch system spares our children the pain of rejection – but part of life, and a huge part of parenting, is preparing our children for a world in which they will experience rejection at some point. That is called maturity.
     Others will argue, with greater cogency, that we prevent young men and women from sinning. Relationships that begin when couples are younger, or friendships that start outside the framework of parental supervision, can induce or lead to inappropriate behavior. That possibility is undoubtedly true, but can be rectified by applying a novel concept called “self-control,” which in any event is the hallmark of the Torah Jew. We do not tell people to avoid The Home Depot even if one wants to buy a hammer lest he shoplift some nails, nor do we admonish others not to shop in Pathmark because one might be led to sin by the aroma of non-kosher foods. Self-control and discipline are routine components of the life of a Jew. And, even granting that “there is no guardian for promiscuity,” it should still be feasible for a young man to talk to or display his personal charms to a woman without assaulting her.
     Sad to say, there is a promiscuity problem, even among some of our high school youth and certainly in college, that cannot be swept away. It can be resolved if parents take responsibility and sit down with their sons and teach them how to respect women – and sit down with their daughters and teach them how to respect themselves.
    Something is not normal, and against human nature as Chazal perceived it, for men to be so diffident, so timid, so Ohn-like, and sit back comfortably relying on others to procure them dates. Young men who would not allow others to choose for them a lulav and etrog do not hesitate to delegate others to find them a spouse. This also unduly delays their fulfillment of the commandment of Pru u’rvu (procreation). And something is not normal, and frankly, unfair, that young women have to sit by the phone for weeks and months waiting to be contacted by agents. As well-meaning as the system intends, it must be demeaning and deflating – worse than even the rejection that happens after casual encounters.
    What is the solution, or the other option? For those people currently of age and in the system, or for communities that would accept only the shidduch­-system, there is no other solution but to redouble our efforts. They will reap the reward, and also, sadly, the misery of those who choose to be passive in life. Obviously, unmarried men and women should be seated together at weddings to facilitate more natural, pressure-free encounters; it is so obvious, it is surprising that it is even debated.
    But for younger people today – say, older teens – there has to be a better way. The paradigm of “don’t smile/talk/socialize/date” until one is ready for marriage constricts the capacity of our young people to assume responsibility for their own lives. Many will disagree with me, even among my colleagues, but if we wish to minimize the heartbreak of so many of our young people, we must find healthy ways of encouraging interaction between teenagers – in shuls, in schools, in youth groups. We have to de-stigmatize self-help and personal initiative. For example, at a shul Kiddush, it should not be construed as abnormal or off-putting if a young man approaches a young woman who has caught his eye, and asks her name, and “would you like a piece of kugel?” That should be normal; at one point, that was darko shel ish. Indeed, that should be even more normal among people of marriageable age, and would consign the shidduch­-system to its appropriate b’diavad status, for people who have not been able to meet on their own. Perhaps the young woman whose lament was featured above should take similar initiatives as well.
     Dating at too young an age is certainly problematic, but teenagers who learn to socialize in groups demystify the opposite sex and learn appropriate boundaries, communication skills and modes of interaction. Such contact makes males more sensitive, and helps them learn at an early age that a young woman is not a shtender, in the Steipler’s elegant phrase, or a vehicle for their own gratification, in the modern lexicon. It certainly helps prepare a couple for marriage if they know each other longer than three weeks or three months, and the recent spate of broken engagements and early divorces in the Jewish world would tend to confirm that. And conversely, the plethora of recent weddings of couples in our community who know each other for years would corroborate that as well.
      I am mindful of the opinions of the gedolim who proscribe any male-female interaction before one is ready to marry, and those gedolim who permit such contact in controlled settings. As a community we have other options than the false choice of isolationism or promiscuity, and we need to strengthen our young men with the inner confidence to guide their own lives. There are too many people walking around with Y chromosomes who are not men. They have an Ohn-like existence, sitting back comfortably and letting others plot their destiny in life. They will never be masters, only objects who cannot lead or build or create. That does not bode well for Klal Yisrael.
      May Hashem bless with success the work of all shadchanim. But we need to shift the culture away from the passive indifference of the well-connected to the active pursuit of spouses by all, and thereby mold more assertive men and more confident women. That is because more is expected of us – as a nation that is called by G-d for greatness not mediocrity, to be active not passive, to be followers of G-d and leaders of mankind.