The True Judge

“Blessed is the true Judge.”

This traditional blessing recited upon hearing sad news, beautiful in its simplicity and expression of faith, has never been more appropriate as one recalls the tumultuous life and turbulent times of Ariel Sharon, one of Israel’s greatest and most complicated leaders ever. Eulogies generally tend to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative, and so it is with the hail of tributes recalling the exceptional achievements of a life devoted almost entirely, if not always successfully, to protecting the security of the Jewish people. But death neither confers sainthood on people nor should it lend itself, among decent people, to an obsessive focus on shortcomings or misdeeds.

Ariel Sharon, to say the least, was a man of many contradictions:

- He was a fiercely proud Jew, yet estranged from most Jewish traditions. By his own admission, he regretted being “robbed” of his heritage, never having been raised with Torah or Mitzvot as functional part of his life, but still showed appropriate respect to those steeped in Jewish life (once, at an intimate dinner in our presence, he questioned our use of “milk” after a meat meal. He had never seen pareve milk before) ;

- He was a daring and creative general who won and lost battles and wars. In 1956, he was roundly condemned for ignoring orders and sending his troops into an unnecessary battle at the Mitla Pass in Sinai. That cost the lives of 38 soldiers, and in the eyes of his superiors, forfeited Sharon the opportunity to ever become Israel’s Chief of Staff. In 1967, his unit overwhelmed the Egyptian defenses in Sinai in a classic battle, and in 1973, he became most famous for leading his men across the Suez Canal, a move that his superiors had approved but not on the time frame that Sharon adopted. That maneuver clinched Israel’s victory after a devastating start to the Yom Kippur War.

- He was the primary builder of settlements in a variety of positions he held from 1977 to 2005, and the primary destroyers of settlements – in 1981 and 2005.

- He formed the Likud – in 1973 – and then disassembled it in 2005.

- Sharon defied orders many times, and then lambasted those who would defy his orders. He disobeyed orders on numerous occasions as a commander, then as a young Member of Knesset urged soldiers to flout orders to dismantle the new settlements begun near Elon Moreh in 1974 – and then, as Prime Minister, declared that refusing his orders to destroy settlements would lead to civil war and the end of Israel.

- He was a legendary fighter against Arab terror who then gave terrorists the greatest gift imaginable – their own territory and, effectively, immunity from conquest.

- He was an icon of Israel’s right-wing who then became its enemy.

- He was the bane of Israel’s left-wing who then became its darling, a “role model” of those whose “values” shift from right to left – the only type of transformation they deem worthy.

- He urged Jews (me, for one) to protest against Oslo in every forum possible as the land of Israel belonged to all Jews, not just those who live in Israel, and then told Jews, essentially, to keep their mouths shut and butt out when he decided to abandon Gush Katif and Northern Shomron.

As I said, he was complicated.

Certainly, he was a leader unafraid to make decisions and carry them out despite, frequently, the human cost involved and the contrary advice he had been given. “Daring” in victory is often a synonym for “reckless” in defeat, and Sharon experienced both. “Courage” and “foolhardiness” are also, often, two sides of the same coin, and determined more by the results than the process. And thus Sharon was courageous and daring, or reckless and foolhardy, in both war and peace. Ultimately, his victories on the battlefield did not bring peace, and his diplomatic foray into “peace” has brought only more war.

The great mystery of Ariel Sharon is how and why he abandoned his support of Jewish settlement and ordered the expulsion of more than 8000 Jews, wantonly destroying families and lives in the process. It is an insoluble enigma, made even more troublesome by the fact that just months before he announced this policy, he had ridiculed it – and won election accordingly – when it was the policy of his opponent, Amram Mitzna, in the 2003 election. How does – how can – a politician run a campaign advocating one position and assailing that of his opponent – and then embrace the defeated opponent’s policies when in office? Perhaps that is in the very definition of the word “politician,” but it remains inexplicable, not to mention immoral.

It is patently absurd to think that Sharon believed that the Expulsion would lead to peace – the whole point was to ignore the enemy rather than reconcile with it – but the very idea contradicted every instinct Sharon had previously indulged. One can speculate that it was designed to win over the left, rehabilitate his reputation, or avert prosecution for himself or his sons, or a genuine attempt to contract Israel’s borders to make them more defensible. But what did he learn in December 2003 that he did not already know in January 2003 when he denounced Mitzna’s plan as dangerous for Israel’s security – and then adopted it?

Certainly, the expulsion was bad enough, but especially execrable was the resultant vulnerability to Israel’s south, brought home vividly by two rockets from Gaza that landed today a short distance away from where Sharon’s burial was taking place. Additionally, the withdrawal by Israel from the Philadelphia corridor at the southern border of Gaza is what enabled Hamas to import the rockets and missiles with which it harasses Jewish life on the border. That, too, is Sharon’s legacy.

He had an important role in almost every major conflict that Israel has fought – from the War of Independence to the ongoing Gaza conflict. As a commander, he pushed himself and his men to remarkable achievements for which they developed a lifelong allegiance to him. He personally saved the life of MK Yaakov Katz (Ketzele) after he was almost cut in half by an Egyptian missile and left for dead. Sharon – again, disobeying orders – ordered a helicopter into the battle zone to rescue him and rush him for emergency treatment. His triumphs in battle are legendary, as are the moments when he overstepped (as in Lebanon) and sought to impose a diplomatic solution through force of arms. Let the carpers attack him for the events in Sabra and Shatila, and I will suffice with Menachem Begin’s initial response: “Christians kill Muslims, and they come to blame the Jews,” a succinct and quite accurate description of that part of the cycle of massacres that occurred in Lebanon during those years. Sharon thereafter was barred from serving as Defense Minister, which he never did again, although, ironically, he was elected to the higher office of prime minister.

The settlement of Judea, Samaria and Gaza had no greater champion that Ariel Sharon. It makes his betrayal that much more stunning, but facts are stubborn things: there would be no settlement movement, or at least Jews would not have been able to settle across the length and breadth of the heartland but for the efforts of Ariel Sharon. In whatever position he held – Minister of Agriculture, Defense, Housing, Construction, Trade, Infrastructure, etc. – each ministry somehow became responsible for Jewish settlement. That will also be part of his legacy, as is this: he proved that the Israeli secular right thrives in opposition, but cannot govern effectively or implement their values in leadership. That is a red warning light that should keep flashing.

It is inordinately difficult to take the measure of any person, but certainly of Ariel Sharon who both enraged and/or endeared himself to all segments of Israeli society, just never at the same time. His personality remained the same, and his willingness to take risks and bulldoze forward without much consultation with others was the unifying theme in his life. It was apparently FDR (some say Cordell Hull) who said in 1939 of the US ally but brutal Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza that “Somoza may be an S.O.B. but he’s our S.O.B.” Is that our final analysis of Ariel Sharon, however indelicate it sounds? That he was always goring someone, but right-wingers loved him when he gored the Arabs and the Israeli left, and left-wingers loved him where he gored the right? I hope not. The fact that the Arab enemy is rejoicing in his death should tilt the scale in his favor.

In today’s Daf Yomi (Yoma 66b), the Talmud states that Rabbi Eliezer was asked: “Is so-and-so [worthy] of the World-to-Come?” And he answered, in effect, that we should not concern ourselves with such questions about other people. Ariel Sharon spent eight years in exile – suspended between life and death, between this world and the next. That alone should give us all pause for reflection.

In Jewish tradition, there is a famous figure known as Yochanan the High priest, “who served as High Priest for eighty years and at the end of his life became a Sadducee” (Berachot 29a). His life, too, was inexplicable. Did the end undo and vitiate all his earlier accomplishments? I would think not. Like all of us, Sharon will be judged in Heaven for the enormous good that he did in his life, and judged as well for the ignoble. Like few of us, his capacity for good and evil had an extremely large range, with an almost incomprehensible chasm between the two. For that, we need not judge him, but celebrate the good that he did, and try to ensure that the evil does not live on after him, nor is it repeated by his successors in the Likud. Judgment is appropriately left to G-d.

“Blessed is the true Judge.”

Religion in America, Past and Present

(This was first published as an op-ed in the Jewish Press of January 3, 2014, and then featured at the Jewish World Review)

    To understand the profound changes in American religious life in the last few generations requires little more than perusing the speech – really, the prayer – offered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on D-Day, June 6, 1944. We will see how dramatically the American culture has shifted in exactly 70 years.

    “My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.

     And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

     They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

    They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

    For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

    Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.

     And for us at home – fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas – whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them – help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.

     Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.

    Give us strength, too – strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.

    And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.

    And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.

    With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.

    Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.”

It is simply unthinkable that a modern American president – or a politician who is not also a clergyman – would speak in that language and those cadences. He would be lambasted by legalists who would argue that such expressions tear down the wall separating church and state; besmirched by trendy moralists decrying the absence of any references to those of “no faith;” assailed by the gender Gotcha Gang for his deference only to fighting men but not fighting women; and ridiculed by the cultural imperialists for his simple belief that the country needed then was not a military overview or analysis of diplomatic options to solve the crisis in Europe but just a moment of prayer and reflection before the Creator of the universe.

Another illustration strengthens the argument.   A new book entitled “JFK, Conservative” (by Ira Stoll, HMH, 2013) released in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, reveals aspects of his life that further shed light on the changed moral climate of this era. Politics aside, Kennedy was a religious man whose speeches and writings were rife with religious references. From a 1946 speech, alluding to his World War II service: “Wherever freedom has been in danger, Americans with a deep sense of patriotism have been ever willing to stand at Armageddon and strike a blow for liberty and the Lord…The right of the individual against the State has ever been one of our most cherished principles…Today these basic religious ideas are challenged by atheism and materialism: at home in the cynical philosophy of many of our intellectuals, abroad in the doctrine of collectivism, which sets up the twin pillars of atheism and materialism as the official philosophical establishment of the State.”

And from a 1960 speech about the dangers of Communism: “This is not a struggle for supremacy of arms alone – it is also a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies; freedom under G-d versus ruthless, G-dless tyranny.”

     It is unimaginable that today’s president would use such language, especially employing the term “atheism” as a malediction or insult. By contrast, both President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, when each spoke to the nation about the outbreak of their respective wars with Iraq, mentioned G-d only in the final peroration.

Certainly, neither FDR nor JFK’s private conduct ever fully adhered to their public expressions of faith (whose does?) but there is something wistful about the America that was and is no longer – an America in which faith was a natural and expected part of public discourse. More often today, expressions of faith are mocked, avoided entirely by public figures except as clichés or platitudes, or watered down to meaninglessness (equating “people of faith and people of no faith”). Usually, it is forced and sounds artificial, like ending every presidential speech with the intonation “G-d bless America,” less a prayer than, well, just a familiar exit line bound to draw applause from an audience mostly appreciative that the speech has ended.

What changed?

Not long after President Kennedy denounced the Soviet Union as the home of the godless, the United States Supreme Court banned formal prayer in the nation’s public schools. The next year, the Court officially sanctioned atheism by proscribing Bible-reading in the public schools. Within a relatively short time and devoid of any source of objective morality outside formal religious training, American youth rebelled against any type of moral authority or religious structure and renounced any limitations on their behavior.

There was a time when schools endeavored to produce good citizens, teaching civics and values, and reinforced proper cultural norms. That era ended a half-century ago, and fifty years of values-free education has produced fifty years of values-free students.

To be sure, that is not entirely accurate; students are taught to explore “values.” But the values and morality they discuss originate from their inner worlds and not from the religious history of mankind. Rather than learn about reality and their place in it, they are taught that their personal realities are all that matter, that their moral conclusions are all legitimate and valid, and that no choice is better than any other choice. Personal happiness matters more than goodness.

The removal of “G-d” from the classroom has trickled up to the rest of society, including society’s leaders.  For more than thirty years, American courts have mostly railed against the presence of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, and prohibited its posting in schools and in many public buildings. What was previously perceived as objective evils – murder, theft, adultery, false testimony, etc. – soon became a matter of personal choice. The rest of society was then admonished not to “judge” those personal choices, except insofar as other people were harmed, but even that was circumscribed. It is inarguable that, even without formal religious instruction in the public schools, there is a huge difference between the child who daily sees a sign on his classroom wall beginning “I am the Lord thy G-d,” and the child who is taught that the child himself is the center of his moral universe.

Much has been made of a study that purported to show the difference in disciplinary problems in public schools in 1940 and in 1990. In 1940, the school authorities had to deal primarily with such outrages as talking out of turn, chewing gum in class, making noise, running in the halls, cutting in line and violations of the dress code. What miscreants! Compare that to the problems of 1990 that have only been exacerbated in the interim: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, and assault. The teacher who admonishes a child for chewing gum in class is more likely to be assaulted – and then disciplined by administrators – than lauded for her efforts.

While some have questioned the accuracy of the findings – typically, those who are enamored with today’s amorality – anyone who went to school then can certainly testify to the greater innocence, wholesomeness and propriety that existed in a society in which G-d’s word and morality permeated its formal institutions. Boys and girls had more respect for each other, and both had more respect for teachers and adults. The removal of “G-d” from the nation’s schools weakened their ability to inculcate any sort of decency. G-d as authority was replaced by each person as his or her own authority. It is not a great leap from that sorry state of affairs to the quaint game of knocking out old women on the street for sport.

The longer that “G-d” has been forcibly removed from the public domain, the more presidents and other officials have shied away from invoking the name of G-d in public except in platitudes (and some, indeed, were wholly unworthy of being taken seriously  if they had spoken of G-d in a substantive context). And the more G-d has receded from being perceived as the Source of all morality, the less our young people have been raised with any semblance of ethics or values that derive from anything beyond their desire for self-gratification.

That, then, is the other dimension present in the decline of religion as a meaningful factor in American life. Religion itself has been perverted to become an instrument designed to make people feel good about themselves and their choices in life. It is a tool – distorted, to be sure – that is fashioned and re-fashioned to pander to the latest moral fads. Eternal law is subverted to conform to fleeting whims. A recent poll showed that the new Pope Francis is almost twice as popular as the Catholic Church that he heads. How can that be? Because the Pope seems like a nice guy, while his church still has rules, makes demands on people’s lives, and inhibits their choices.

The same dynamic exists in our world as well. The Torah, to many people, should also subject to public opinion polls. Prohibitions that are frowned on by modern sensibilities should be re-evaluated, even re-read and re-interpreted, so as to conform to the “higher morality” that stems from man’s instinctual drives.  Threats are made that people will abandon Judaism if the appropriate concessions are not implemented. Traditional norms are under siege, and the Jewish home –heretofore a rock of stability and one of the sources of our eternity – is faltering  under the pressure. There is a relentless juggernaut that now seems unstoppable to cajole the Torah world into acquiescing in the erosion of the moral norms that reflect the Divine word and have always defined the uniqueness of Jewish life. And all in the name of “morality.” It is a complete inversion of our traditional position of defending against the encroachment of secular society’s values into Jewish life.

A president who today used the language of FDR or JFK would be derided. If he were a candidate, the media elites would bury his chances of winning the election. He would be a laughing stock to the aimless youth whose uninformed opinions on public affairs seem to matter more than they should. But they can hardly be blamed, for this is how they were educated.

It was a better country when FDR and JFK felt comfortable invoking G-d’s name, as it was, indeed, a better society when they, despite their infidelities, nonetheless felt it distasteful to divorce their wives. Marriage, however imperfect the institution of the bond of one man and one woman, meant something. Those days are gone, washed away by the specter of same-sex marriage, polygamous marriages, and other permutations of the same that have denuded the institution of its meaning, sanctity and long-term viability.

In such a climate, Torah Jewry is indeed called upon to “a light onto the nations,” not to ape their values but guide them towards embracing ours. We can hold firm against the decadent tide that now inundates us, recall the halcyon days to understand how this decline came about, behold the systematic collapse of the most pleasant exile with which G-d has blessed us, and ready ourselves for our return to G-d’s holy and chosen land.


News of the Weak

       For the third time this year, Israel has freed more than two dozen Arab terrorists, murderers among them, despite the fact that many were sentenced to life imprisonment. This mockery of justice is the price that Israel paid for the privilege of negotiating the surrender of its ancestral, divinely-ordained land to its enemy – a classic lose-lose situation. The question is not why theses outrages typify the Israeli government; that has been discussed already. The other challenging question is how does PM Binyamin Netanyahu retain  his popularity while presiding over such a government whose weaknesses rival that of any left-wing government (classic Likud) and whose diplomatic policies on absolutely critical matters of state remain a deep mystery to his citizens? Even in the midst of this week’s terrorist joy fest, his poll ratings are up and his party would be projected to win even more seats if Knesset elections were held today. How is that possible?

    There are several possibilities, especially the obvious. Despite the loud and justifiable protests of bereaved families and sensible Israelis, most of the country simply doesn’t care. Sure, they will express sympathy, some regret, and perhaps even shed a tear along with the relatives of the murdered who get to watch their loved one’s murderers feted as heroes by the barbarians in suits who threaten them – but, at the end of the day, they remain unaffected by it. They can still go to shul and/or work in the morning, have a pleasant lunch, earn a nice living, return to their families at night, and be thankful that the savages have been kept at bay another day. That the gargoyles who cheerfully stabbed and shot children, women and men to death are now free to resume their mayhem in Israeli society (for some, literally; five were released to their homes in East Jerusalem and have unfettered access throughout Israel) does not affect them in the slightest. Until it does.

    And yet, the polls show a substantial – even overwhelming –number of Israelis, both religious and secular, opposed to these releases. The tactic is considered absurd, senseless, immoral and foolish. So how can the Israeli public vehemently oppose these releases and yet support the Prime Minister who is allowing them? (Granted that the peculiar nature of the Israeli parliamentary system is such that even with his increased poll numbers, Netanyahu and his party attract a little more than 27% of the vote.)

The answer lies in one of the most extraordinary turnarounds in political history, and a master stroke that should be studied by political scientists for years to come. Netanyahu has brilliantly fashioned a second term in office that has obscured and obliterated memories of the failures of his first. How?

The Prime Minister has always been a man of words – in both Hebrew and English – articulate, passionate, even glib on occasion. He spent his first term trying to convince everyone who would listen that he knows what is best. He was interviewed constantly, and spoke frequently. He was accessible, and considered it his duty to explain his government’s policies. He thereby opened himself to constant analysis and attack.

Those days are long gone, and it is hard to recall a politician who has similarly been able to hide in plain sight as does Binyamin Netanyahu. He rarely gives interviews, and almost never to the hostile, leftist Israeli media. He controls his message with astonishing discipline. When he appears on camera, it is always to talk tough (like after a rocket or terrorist attack). His words are rationed carefully. He never expresses public weakness. He is never caught speaking off camera, with a live microphone. Sure, he will repeat the tripe (I hope it’s the tripe) about “painful sacrifices.” But was it the PM who announced the release of more terrorist-murderers? No. Was it Netanyahu who had to hear the laments and the taunts – in his past writings, he was adamantly and eloquently opposed to such releases – of the families of the victims of terror protesting outside the PM’s official? No. He was conveniently out of town, and when he wanted to return, he had the local police disperse the protesters.

Remarkably, he has rendered himself immune from criticism for his own policies. He is never heard advocating them, he never needs to defend them, and the people only hear, and repeatedly, the strident clichés about Israel’s might and willingness to use it. His coalition partners largely silence themselves to avoid being banished to the political wilderness. The notoriously rambunctious Israeli media has been defanged, grasping at straws that dissipate in the wind, desperate for access, and frustrated that they have been marginalized. Even leaks disappear without a trace, because there is no official comment – neither confirmation nor denial. Nothing!

Thus, he has perfected the incredibly transparent maneuver of mollifying the right-wing by offering – again, again, and again – the sop of proposing to maybe offer more tenders to perhaps build more apartments in Judea and Samaria sometime down the road unless events force him to allow underlings to retract his commitments when few are paying attention. And they fall for it, every time. Not long ago, after a terrorist attack in Hevron, Netanyahu in response vowed to allow Israelis to move into a building they had purchased years ago, whose occupancy is currently being held up by the Defense Ministry. The vow was vintage Netanyahu – public, bold, and forceful. And the retraction just days later was also vintage Netanyahu – muted, muffled, announced through lowly officials and leaving the aggrieved with no recourse.

And, for some reason, all that remains in the public mind is the strong Netanyahu, which is nothing less than the projection of their own wishful thinking.

It is clear that Israel’s justice system has collapsed under the weight of Israel’s political class. No terrorist should feel any sense of deterrence – certainly not lengthy incarceration for his dastardly crimes. The enemy has already announced there will be no peace until ALL terrorists are freed, and, of course, they are people of their word, as well as their sword. It has become a moral wrong to incarcerate for long the murderers of Jews in the Jewish state.

In such an environment, the people themselves are on notice. There was a time when Israelis would rush to defend a captured terrorist from an angry mob, preferring the civility of the judicial system to the wrath of the rabble. They would have to be fools to show such restraint these days. The decisions of the judiciary matter little when the politicians – who ensconce themselves in multiple layers of protection – overrule the sentences of the guilty. Indeed, one can make a compelling moral argument for dispatching the terrorists before the politicians get their claws on the jailhouse keys. If the independent judiciary is largely irrelevant to the ultimate fate of these murderers, then their fate truly rests in the hands of a majority of the citizenry at any given time. That is politics. The people who capture a terrorist have every right to make the political decision on their own to put an end to the career of the miscreant.

The other possibility – much less likely, unfortunately – would be the execution of every terrorist involved in the murder or attempted murder of an Israeli citizen or tourist. On some level, that would satisfy the Palestinian demand that Israeli jails not detain a single Arab terrorist. More importantly, it would be just. It would deter. It would relieve the Israeli public from having to constantly relive the nightmare of seeing murderers walk free, dance, sing and celebrate the weakness of their own elected leaders.

Those who fear that another surrender – Oslo III – is on the horizon should pay attention. If Netanyahu could not withstand the inducements to perpetrate something as immoral and preposterous as freeing murderers for absolutely no reason other than that those who sent them on their missions insisted on it, he will not be able to withstand the blandishments – or the ballyhoo – of signing ceremonies, White House meetings, handshakes, international acclaim (however temporary), and Israeli media adulation.

And the terror that will inevitably follow? Not to fear. The murderers will be freed before anyone notices, in the dead of night, with the PM’s fingerprints nowhere to be found.

Dynamic Orthodoxy

     Recently, I stumbled on an article written by Professor Mordechai Breuer in an old issue of Hamaayan (Tammuz, 1999, 39:4) about Orthodoxy in the 19th century. Much of what we “know,” in retrospect, turns out to be false, including the very term Orthodox. Conventional wisdom teaches that the term was applied to religious Jews by our ideological foes, and was meant pejoratively. In fact, Professor Breuer demonstrates, the term was first used by the German theologian Johann David Michaelis as a friendly reference to Moses Mendelsohn, who then began using the term in his writings about Jewish life. The expression, meaning “correct belief,” has defined Torah Jewry for at least 150 years.
     What was especially fascinating about Prof. Breuer’s article was the description of the efforts made by the rabbis in the early 19th century to accommodate the nascent Reform movement so as to avert a schism in the Jewish people. Innovations were made and deviations were accepted, all for the greater good, although, in fact, not in major areas of Halacha. For example, no less an authority than Rav Yaakov Etlinger (the Aruch Laner) conducted Bat Mitzvot in his shul, and Rav Natan Adler of Hanover (later Chief Rabbi of the British Empire) told anxious questioners to obey a new German edict that prohibited Jews from burying their dead until 48 hours after death.
     Chacham Isaac Bernays (a rebbe of Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch) specifically chose the title “Chacham” to imply that he was a different type of spiritual leader, and permitted “modern” (it was 1835, after all) brides who objected to circling their grooms under the chupah simply to stand put. Confirmed Orthodox rabbis – like Rav Hirsch – wore ceremonial robes and preached in German, certainly to the horror of Eastern European rabbis. All of the above were staunch opponents of Reform Judaism.
     One reason for the openness was because all rabbis (except the Chatam Sofer) supported the Emancipation and knew that the fall of the ghetto walls would offer both risks and opportunities. They tried to present a more modern face to Torah and thereby keep even less observant but nominally “Orthodox” Jews in the fold as well as those leaning towards Reform. Unfortunately, these outreach efforts to Reform ultimately failed and all efforts were abandoned after the Reform held a conference at Braunschweig in 1844 in which they renounced fundamental principles of Judaism and gave up any pretense of adherence to tradition.
   Nonetheless, the innovations in Orthodoxy in the 1800′s – its sheer vitality and ability to adapt to the times – puts paid to the notion that the Torah world is frozen, frigid, unresponsive and archaic, all criticisms that one still hears today from people who find fault with the Torah and desire to conform its laws to the times. Prof. Breuer counts at least eight innovations or movements that transformed Orthdoxy in the 19th century, and most of them are still influential today.
1) Chasidut, which although technically arose in the 18th century, was perfectly placed to retain the allegiance of Jews who were not drawn to the study of Torah and provided a powerful emotional hook to lure in Jews who would otherwise stray.
2) The Yeshiva movement, started by Rav Chaim Volozhin in Volozhin in 1804, revolutionized the study of Torah. It was originally a counter force to Chasidut, but made Talmud Torah into a national project and desideratum (rather than just a local matter) and inspired many imitators across Europe.
3) The Musar movement of Rav Yisrael Salanter endeavored to permeate Jewish life with ethical sensitivity in a systemized, rather than informal, way. The study of ethics because a routine feature in many yeshivot, even as others resisted the encroachment on general Torah study.
4) Torah and Derech Eretz of Rav Hirsch was designed to make the modern world less frightening to the Jew. He taught and inspired generations that one can be a faithful Jew and still be part of the modern world – all of which was his response to the opportunities of Emancipation.
5) Formal rabbinical training  was unknown before the 19th century. The spiritual leader simply learned Torah and was sent to lead a community. The German rabbinate – credit here Rav Azriel Hildesheimer – pioneered the rabbinical seminary in which students would learn Torah and general knowledge, and acquire the skills necessary for leadership.
6) Scientific study of Jewish subjects, a matter fraught with danger, also attracted its share of religious proponents, and due to the emancipation, Jews for the first time in large numbers attended university. Additionally, professions like law, medicine, engineering,etc., historically limited to Jews,  now provided avenues out of the poverty in which most Jews were forced to live.
7) The land of Israel was reborn to Jews in the 19th century and at first was primarily a religious movement. Disciples of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov made Aliya in the early 1800′s, and Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer already in 1840 exhorted Jews to return to Israel and reclaim our homeland. Zionism was perceived as a positive venture until the movement was taken over by opponents of Torah and the new yishuv advocated outright disobedience to Torah norms.
8) Women’s Torah education began in the 19th century in Germany, and then approximately 1920 in Poland with the Beis Yaakov movement. While there was little formal elementary education for boys in the 1800′s, there was almost none for girls. The advent of mandatory education for all necessitated this change, which revolutionized Jewish life as well.
    It turns out that the 19th century was hardly a time of stagnation for Jews but an era of immense vibrancy and growth. Jews in the 20th and now the 21st centuries have essentially built on the accomplishments of those giants. And lest one think that Orthodoxythen was lively but has become dormant in the last century, perish the thought: what are some of the great successes of the Torah world in the last 100 years? Certainly a more educated laity is at the top of the list, followed by the prominence of Orthodox Jews in every profession and endeavor, and the gradual permeation by the Jewish state of the ethos of Torah – including the development of the Orthodox soldier (the scholar-warrior), something not widely seen in Jewish life for almost two millennia, and others as well.
    It is uncanny – certainly G-d’s hand – that the Torah has been rejuvenated, and the Am Hashem is again dynamic. Our obligation then is to anticipate the challenges of the future and craft the appropriate response, to glorify the Creator, His Torah and His people.

Freedom of Irreligion

      Religion is on the defensive in American life these days. What began as a simple, direct and unprecedented statement of government detachment from religion – the First Amendment’s “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – has morphed into a steady weakening of the “free exercise” clause. The strongest weapon wielded against religion today is a distortion of the value of “tolerance.”

     In the name of “tolerance” marriage has lost its traditional moorings and now become unrecognizable; religious people have to watch what they say and even think; the Bible has to be suppressed, perhaps in some dreary future to be studied only in dark basements behind locked doors lest the thought police hear someone cite an unapproved verse; the values bequeathed to us by G-d have to be adjusted and conformed to the times, and often renounced in public discourse; and, indeed, it is unsafe and unhealthy to refer to G-d’s word in public, lest the advocates for “tolerance” show their ugly, intolerant sides.

Just ask the Duck Dynasty. In truth, the next time I watch the Duck Dynasty will be the first time I watch the Duck Dynasty. I am not even completely aware of who they are or what they purport to do. But I do know that the senior duck is being persecuted for articulating his faith and his values. The notion of homosexual conduct as sinful is not something that was fabricated in 2010. It is actually quite ancient. It is its “decriminalization” – i.e., its forced removal from the list of sins – that is new, and is being imposed on the rest of society under duress. The Ducks should take their business elsewhere, to an environment more hospitable to their needs. The elites, apparently, so confident in their moral superiority, feel no need even to reckon with or tolerate other viewpoints. “Off with their beaks!” they proclaim.

Same sex marriage has become an unstoppable force, and marriage itself is perceived by society’s elites as antiquated. New York City’s Mayor and New York State’s Governor openly consort with “girlfriends” without paying any social price. There is no scorn, no stigma, no moral opprobrium. We are way past that, too sophisticated. As predicted, the acceptance of same sex marriage has generated a re-evaluation of all marriage arrangements. This week, a Utah court watered down the state’s anti-polygamy law, ruling unconstitutional a clause that prohibited even “cohabitation” with more than one “spouse.” That is, in Utah today, one can marry one woman civilly and as many as one can bear religiously and not violate the bigamy statutes. Well, at least the Bible recognizes polygamy.

Rabbenu Gershom’s ordinance banning polygamy for Ashkenazic Jews, now more than 1000 years old, was rooted in the concept that polygamy was alien and considered abhorrent in Christian society. That conclusion might require some re-evaluation now, although, on a personal note, my wife is suddenly less progressive than I had assumed.

In another sign of the times, a North Dakota judge this week permitted a man married to a man (in another state) to also marry a woman, and why not? There is not enough love in the world, and the more the merrier. We are only at the beginning of the infinite permutations of marital arrangements in our future, all of which will lead to a further exacerbation of the dire problem of the instability of the American family and the dreadful effects on the aimless children being produced. It is, though, a boon for Hallmark, which can now expand its greeting card business into heretofore unimaginable terrain.

It is less salutary to other industries, especially when the new immorality crashes head-on into the old morality, and this is where American religious life is again under siege. There are lawsuits sprouting across the country against religious businessmen – photographers, bakers, party hall renters – whose beliefs and values proscribe any recognition of or participation in same-sex marriage ceremonies. Some of those businesspeople have already lost at trial, ordered to pay thousands of dollars in fines, and whose cases are on appeal. Is this not an obvious violation of the “free exercise” clause? Do I not have the right to refuse to officiate at an interfaith or same-sex (or, for that matter, polygamous) marriage? Must our shul rent its facilities for purposes we deem inimical to G-d’s word?

Such was once obvious in America. It no longer is. The success of the homosexual lobby has been so enormous that, literally overnight, it has transformed what was considered to be deviant and depraved conduct into a moral desideratum. Those who find homosexuality sinful are on the defensive. In the America that is looming, the two previous sentences can easily be construed as hate speech to be reviled if not also prosecuted. We are left to beg for some measure of acceptance for our views, knowing how out of the mainstream they are.

But isn’t that the very essence of tolerance? Isn’t tolerance a two-way street? If I peacefully accept my neighbors’ views that I consider immoral, shouldn’t he also have to accept my views that he considers benighted? Of course, but not in today’s America, and it will be worse in tomorrow’s. We have reached a stage in which freedom of speech is subject to mob approval, and freedom of religion is constricted until it conforms to the prevailing social norms. And it is the liberals – purported defenders in the extreme of those very clauses in the Bill of Rights – who are today’s persecutors.

The thought police, the speech police, and the approved religious belief police – all self-appointed, and all then anointed by the media as moral watchdogs safeguarding the purity of American social life (as they see it) – are totalitarians. Worse (in their language), they are bullies, and the repugnance of their conduct is proportionate to the shrillness of their demands on the rest of us.

The US Supreme Court will shortly hear arguments about the Obamacare edict forcing religious institutions (and individuals) to pay for contraception and other matters that violate their religious beliefs. Orthodox groups are preparing to file briefs in support of the church’s position, as their struggle is the struggle of all religious entities. Donations can be made to to support the effort.

We are living through the consequences of the forced removal of G-d from the public domain, especially schools. More than two generations of children have been raised without knowledge of – without even any access to – any sense of objective morality. There is no longer any sense of absolute right and wrong to guide young people’s moral choices, only what makes one feel good or bad, happy or sad, and in the short term.  And the irresolute morals of the citizenry have engendered national leadership which is correspondingly anemic and ineffectual.

All we can do is hold firm to our values that will surely endure even this assault, never lose faith, and plead for “tolerance” to the powerful forces arrayed against moral man.


    PM Binyamin Netanyahu was roundly criticized by the usual suspects for absenting himself from the memorial service for South Africa’s late leader Nelson Mandela. To be sure, the lamest of reasons was offered: the expense of traveling and the inability to arrange for adequate security in such a short period of time. The former is bogus – a delegation led by Israel’s Knesset Speaker attended anyway – and the latter is equally specious, unless the security needed was to protect the Prime Minister from some of the other world “leaders” in attendance. And therein lies the paradox of Nelson Mandela.

     The coverage of his life, death and prolonged funeral has effectively characterized Mandela’s remarkable career and life story, even as it has downplayed some of the more sordid aspects. That is usually understandable after someone’s death, but is especially reserved for iconic figures whose lives transcended their personal stories and thereby transmit a deeper message. Considering that South Africa is not a major world power and geographically isolated from much of the civilized world, and even conceding the ignominy of the apartheid system that kept blacks enslaved and second-class residents in their own country, what is it about Mandela – a national hero to be sure – that transformed him into an international symbol? And what are the limits of the adulation?

One simple comparison illustrates Mandela’s uniqueness, and alone justifies much of the lionization. Look at Zimbabwe’s thuggish dictator Robert Mugabe – who also prevailed over the apartheid system extant in Rhodesia – and the distinctions become clear. Mugabe has driven his country into dire poverty amid his own brand of persecution, ruling with a brutal, iron fist, preventing free elections, filling his prisons with his opponents and lining his own pockets and those of his supporters. It is inarguable that whites – and even blacks – were better off under the prior system, even with its racism, that they are today.

By contrast, Mandela emerged from prison humble, human, and dignified. He ushered in an era of reconciliation, which, if imperfectly implemented, was at least an effort at something positive. He was elected president, and then stepped down after one term, enshrining the façade of democracy and providing an example to his successors (not to mention other African strongmen). There was no reign of terror. For simply choosing a different path than Mugabe, Mandela deserves praise.

Nonetheless, as one looks at his history, and without justifying either the apartheid system or certainly not its excesses, one wonders, given the context of the era, if another narrative could have been written. The African National Congress, created almost 90 years ago to fight discrimination, became a terrorist group with strong Communist ties. It was almost reflexively anti-American, and attempting to overthrow a naturally pro-American government. Even discounting the racial dimension, that was not an approach that could have garnered much Western support at the time, and Mandela – arrested, tried and convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to commit other violent acts – and himself drawn to Communism, paid a very heavy personal price for his beliefs –nearly three decades of imprisonment under inhuman conditions. And yet he emerged from prison with moderated, not hardened, views, and astonishingly, not embittered by his experiences and the loss of so many years of his life.

Further analysis reveals his thorny relations with Jews and Israel. South African Jews themselves had a comlicated relationship with the apartheid regime, not enamored by it and yet mostly benefiting from the system. Certainly, South African Jews – primarily emigrants from Lithuania and their offspring – experienced persecution in their native land, escaped it, and undoubtedly were not eager supporters of the regime. Indeed, many South African Jews were prominent opponents of apartheid, including the Communist ANC leader Joe Slovo (born into a frum family in Lithuania) and Helen Suzman, longtime Member of Parliament and a crusader against the white government. By the same token, Mandela’s prosecutor – Percy Yutar (originally Yuter) – was also Jewish, indeed, South Africa’s first Jewish Attorney-General and a staunch defender of apartheid. (Interestingly, Yutar later claimed to have saved Mandela’s life by purposely asking for a sentence of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty, which, he says, the judge would have imposed had it been requested. When the two met again in 1995, at Mandela’s invitation, Yutar was served a kosher lunch and Mandela expressed no hard feelings.)

Regarding his attitude to Israel, Mandela followed lockstep the trendy, Third-World demonization of Israel that taints most countries until today. Whatever one maintains about the ANC, not every terrorist group in the world fights for a legitimate cause, and not every terrorist is a freedom fighter. Some (most?) are just bloodthirsty savages, and in Israel’s case, motivated more by passionate, Islamic-inspired Jew-hatred than by politics, statehood, territory, refugees or freedom. Here, Mandela had a blind spot. His closeness with Arafat (and Castro, Qaddafi, et al) demonstrated a lack of discernment as to the nature of people and their causes. Consequently, among the world leaders at Mandela’s funeral was a veritable rogues’ gallery of unsavory people, including a healthy assortment of murderers, oppressors, thieves, blackmailers and Jew-haters.

The Israeli press, anxious not to be left of the international love fest, scoured the record of the last two decades for Mandela statements that were positive about Israel. They did find some – he had a streak of graciousness and magnanimity that was admirable – but his negative rhetoric was more pronounced and perceptible. He was, and the South African government remains today, harshly critical of Israel, trapped in the vocabulary of the 1960s and 1970s that denounced colonialism regardless of whether or not the slur fit the situation. Mandela’s Third World ties, and world view, remained too firmly ensconced in the idiom of the oppressed to appreciate the nuances of the Israeli dilemma, and certainly not the drama of the Jewish people’s return to its homeland in fulfillment of the biblical prophecy.

As such, it was wise for PM Netanyahu not to attend, and thereby not be subjected to the unpleasantness of rubbing shoulders with some of the scoundrels who did come – villains who mean Israel and the Jewish people only harm. On balance, which is how we are all judged, Nelson Mandela lived an inspirational but flawed life and should rightfully be a hero to his people. But just like one cannot dance at every wedding, one also cannot mourn at every funeral. Sometimes, grief and appreciation of the indomitability of the human spirit, best takes place at a distance.

Betrayal and Salvation

Here in Israel, Chanuka is a magical time, celebrated as a national holiday and for the best reason: it is a national holiday. One night, I attended the lighting of the Menorah at the Kotel (the Western Wall, the remnant of the ancient Temple) and it is an incomparable experience to be present at the very location where the miracle of Chanuka occurred, just footsteps away. The previous Chief Rabbi, Rav Shlomo Amar, presided, in front of a crowd of more than 1000 people. The plaza was illuminated, alive and bustling – and Chanuka was more than the seasonal, gift-giving, party holiday it has become in America but rather an authentic expression of Jewish history before our eyes that arouses a present yearning for the rebuilding of the Temple.

The miracles of Chanuka are also being commemorated this year at a time when Israelis (and thinking Americans) see the looming specter of an emboldened jihadist Iran on the horizon. Nearly 80% of Israelis believe that this agreement will not prevent Iran’s entry into the nuclear club. President Obama’s domestic failures pale before the breath-taking incompetence of his conduct of foreign affairs that has made the world an increasingly and frighteningly more dangerous place. And there is a simple way to understand just how the Obama-negotiated accords with Iran has betrayed allies and friends, weakened America and strengthened Iran.

In one fell swoop, Obama undermined and vitiated more than a decade’s worth of UN resolutions designed to pressure, constrain and debilitate Iran. For the first time, Iran’s uranium enrichment program was legitimized, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons thereby, in effect, approved. The sanctions regime that was painstakingly assembled – garnering even Russian and Chinese approval in the United Nations – was greatly weakened. Even assuming that Iran’s economy is suffering and that such matters (to dictatorships such as Iran, civilian suffering is inconsequential), the injection into the Iranian economy of billions of dollars will enable it to survive even a re-imposition of sanctions in the future. Like the many US laws that Obama simply chooses not to enforce – his own health-care law when it suits him, its waivers and carve-outs, drug laws, immigration laws, etc., simply because he always knows better – the President has simply overridden Congress and the UN’s application of sanctions, because he knows better.

This is not merely opinion. The clearest proof is not the reaction in Israel to Obama’s betrayal, or the disgust with which the Saudis and the Egyptians feel let down by the American government. The rejoicing in Iran should be enough to give Obama acolytes pause. As Arutz-7 reported last week, the Chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee boasted on Iranian television: “After ten years, we have emerged victorious over the west. They wanted to prevent us from acquiring nuclear technology, but we have reached that point…The Americans reached the conclusion that it would be futile to continue with their policy of confronting the Islamic Republic.”

As its centrifuges continue to spin, and its uranium continues to be enriched to weapons grade level, Iran edges closer to its cherished goal of acquiring a nuclear weapon that will transform it into the dominant power in the Middle East. Try imposing sanctions (“ratchet it up…crank it up” in Obama’s tired clichés) then on a nuclear Iran, and the world will learn the power of nuclear blackmail. The greatest change in US policy is that for the first time in almost 35 years, the United States has recognized the legitimacy of the Revolutionary Government in Iran – that same regime that held Americans hostage, killed hundreds in Beirut and across the world, and has been the leading sponsor of global terror in pursuit of the propagation of the “religion of peace.”

It is chilling that this agreement was negotiated largely by Wendy Sherman, whose prior negotiations with North Korea ended with the North Korean nuclear bomb, despite all her rhetoric, the signing ceremonies and the diplomatic pieties. Talk about “failing upward.” (Sherman’s professional training is as a social worker, apparently a most useful field of study when dealing with genocidal maniacs.) After the fiasco in her previous attempts at nuclear de-proliferation, promoting her to conduct the same negotiations with Iran makes as much sense as hiring a community organizer to be Commander-in-Chief of what was the world’s major power. But that happened as well, with predictable results.

Thus, Iran retains much of its nuclear fuel – for the first time, with Western acquiescence, can continue to enrich its uranium to a grade that permits easier enrichment to nuclear grade, and has delayed its program according to intelligence estimates by roughly…two weeks. It is even unclear whether all of its facilities have been revealed. Obama has chosen to rely on Iranian good-will in allowing complete inspections of its facilities, apparently unaware of the Islamic doctrine of takkiya, which permits lying to the infidel in order to promote jihad. And as if “inspections” have been effective in the past in halting anyone’s nuclear programs. That is deadly naïveté.

All is not lost. A visiting Israeli diplomat said last week that Israel possesses the capability to deal with Iran, although ideally several countries would act in concert. Iran’s military power is overrated, hence its quest for weapons of mass destruction. But it will not be easy, nor will it be pain-free.

Which brings us back to Chanuka. At the Kotel, Rav Amar noted that multiples of seven all celebrate aspects of the natural world. There are seven days of the week, two major holidays last seven days (Pesach and Succot) and the third holiday comes after the counting of seven weeks. Chanuka is our only eight-day holiday. It is beyond nature, super-natural. It is one of the special occasions during the years when we celebrate the divine miracles that have sustained us throughout history, until today.

And as he spoke, Rav Amar pointed to the ancient Herodian stones behind him that ringed the Second Temple and said that these stones are “witnesses.” They are witnesses to what happened on Chanuka (i.e., the stones beneath the Herodian ones), witnesses to the Jewish connection to this holy place, witnesses to our faithfulness throughout the long exile, and witnesses to our return to our roots and the place where the Divine Presence is most tangible.

At that time and at that place, it was impossible not to sense that our modern crisis will also be resolved, with determination and strength, and that salvation will come to us and our world, as it did to our forefathers in those days and during this season.