Race to the Top

When the LA Clippers owner chose “Sterling” as his last name, it is clear he didn’t have his character in mind. We can stipulate that his infamous statements were racist and repugnant. Frankly, they were also stupid, in large part unintelligible, such that one can easily conclude that he suffers from a form of dementia. (Judging by the way the franchise has been run for thirty years Clippers fans might assume that dementia beset him long ago.)

Nonetheless, there are a number of troubling aspects about this episode, Sterling’s proposed lifetime ban from the NBA and the forced sale of his team, beyond his foolish and odious comments. For one, it is worrisome the way the right of free speech – which in America once protected even detestable speech – is being whittled down to practical insignificance. Just several weeks ago, the new CEO of Mozilla Firefox was hounded from his position because he opposes same-sex marriage. Apparently, the historically liberal position protecting all forms of speech is waning. As noted here in the past, modern liberal elites, to paraphrase Voltaire, will defend to the death your right to agree with them. If an NBA owner – religious Christian or Jew – publicly advocated traditional marriage (between a man and a woman, if you have forgotten), will that owner also be subject to sanctions and public pillorying?

The correct answer to that question is “not yet,” but we are certainly heading down that road. Of course, there is a difference in kind and degree between opposition to same sex marriage and racism, but clearly the consequences are the same. In some circles the former attitude is unacceptable and akin to racism (so they would have us believe) and in all circles the latter sentiment is offensive. The common denominator, though, is that both men have been stripped of their livelihoods. That can’t bode well for the future, as this will become the new and only acceptable standard for the expression of undesirable speech. (Well, there is another standard as well: the IRS can harass you into silence if your politics offend the authorities.)

From my vantage point, I would much prefer that the marketplace decide a person’s fate for deplorable conduct or speech, along with appropriate social ostracism. If, for example, a storeowner or company were found to be Jew haters, I would cease to patronize that establishment and would expect all decent people to do the same (like all decent people should boycott Firefox). I would not want the government or the society of merchants to pound the offender into submission. Intolerant speakers should also be ostracized socially and feel the scorn of polite society. Let the marketplace, rather than the “man,” ruin the business of a bigot. As such, I am fully supportive of the Clippers sponsors dropping the team, as I would be of fans refusing to attend the team’s games until there was new ownership or players refusing to sign with the team. It just seems a fairer way to repudiate Sterling; let him be forced to sell the team because the revenue stream has dried up, not because the “man” has decided that this individual does not have the right of free speech because he has exercised that right so disgracefully.

It is true that NBA ownership rights are limited by league by-laws, and owners can be sanctioned for conduct detrimental to the league. In a sense, the marketplace in which Sterling conducts his business does control his future. But is private speech “conduct”? Indeed, his public conduct in relation to the team would seem to be fairly conventional – a longtime black general manager (granted, a relationship that did not end well, but, truth be told, Elgin Baylor, great player that he was, was not much of a GM), a black head coach, and mostly black players. In any event, someone who allegedly hates blacks and still buys an NBA franchise makes as much sense as a Jew hater owning a seforim store.

It is also disconcerting that Sterling’s lamentable comments were taped in private and released by a “girlfriend” to the public. For sure, Jews are on permanent notice to watch what we say and what we do: “know what is Above you. There is an Eye that sees, an Ear that hears, and all one’s deeds are recorded in a [Heavenly] book” (Avot 2:1). She, too, is a despicable person, indeed, perfectly matched with her ex-oldmanfriend. There is an expectation of privacy that facilitates normal social and familial relations. When that is breached – and for the worst reasons; she is a gold digger looking to squeeze more money out of him and his family – we all suffer.

Indeed, it would be wonderful if the NBA morals clause for its owners and players considered public adultery a violation as well. One should cringe in reading any sentence that includes the incongruous phrases “his wife,” and “his girlfriend.” That he is a lowlife on multiple counts is clear, but I suspect that applying the morals clause to morality would denude the NBA of many of its owners and players.  But, you might ask, isn’t adultery private conduct? Yes, but so was the racist speech.

Is there a broader lesson here, some deeper message that can resonate and reform the society? No. Hatred is often as inexcusable as it is often bizarre, but it is an emotion that has its proper uses and, like all emotions, cannot be legislated out of the human psyche. Its worst consequences come not through speech but through action, notwithstanding that even hateful speech sullies the society.

Yet, there is also an appalling hypocrisy that should be obvious to all. Sterling was already honored once by the NAACP (he was to be honored again), which doesn’t mean that his remarks were spontaneous and original but that the NAACP – like other race hustlers – routinely extorts money for its leftist political causes and its leadership from whites who donate out of guilt or fear and from white racists looking to purchase respectability. Look no further that the guest-of-honor at the dinner from which Sterling was now banned, one Al Sharpton, one of the primary race hucksters in America today. How does an organization that seeks to be mainstream and reputable honor (well, Sterling, but also) Sharpton, who made his career impugning the character of various white people and provoked a riot in New York City with an anti-Jewish screed that resulted in the death of seven people, even calling the Jewish storeowner in Harlem a “white interloper?” Sharpton led a protest in front of Lubavitch headquarters after Yankel Rosenbaum hy”d was stabbed to death in a black race riot in 1991, crying “No justice, no peace.” Of course, that quest for justice was not for justice for the murdered Jewish yeshiva student, whose confessed murderer was acquitted of homicide by a mostly black jury. Nevertheless, Sharpton has been rehabilitated, is regularly feted by President Obama and is even featured on cable television. It is impossible to imagine a white with identical racist views as those of Sharpton or Jesse Jackson achieving the same sort of mainstream credibility that they possess.

For that matter, how does Charles Barkley get away with calling the NBA a “black league”? Sure, the entertainers are mostly black, but most of the owners, fans, and sponsors are white. The revenue that has created thousands of black millionaires primarily comes from whites. Should that not be acknowledged? (It needs to be said that those black millionaires earn their money fairly, by monetizing their talents and providing a service that people want.)

Racists in America today are outliers and not tolerated in polite society, so Sterling will get his just desserts and warrants no sympathy. For sure, no NBA owner will vote against forcing him to sell or that owner will face the wrath of the public and players. The vote is a foregone conclusion. But peculiar and atypical events such as this one distort the reality of racism in the United States. It is a fringe phenomenon that is kept alive by people who profit from it. When Chief Justice John Roberts had the gall to write in 2007 (in PICS, the last affirmative action case before the Schuette decision two weeks ago) that the best “way to stop discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating based on race,” he was roundly condemned by the liberal media and the usual suspects. But those who endorse favorable, special treatment based on race should not be surprised to encounter maltreatment based on race. Both forms of discrimination are absurd. Color of skin, hair, eyes, and the like should play no role in assessing the worth of a human being or in assigning his place in schools or the business world.

We are far from that situation not because racism is prevalent but because too many people benefit from the frequent accusations of racism routinely lodged against, well, anyone, even, for example, opponents of Obamacare. That is not to say that Sterling was motivated by anything more than sheer bigotry, and perhaps the onset of senility, but one thing is obvious: the stridency of his public putdown will pale before the shrillness of the commentariat that will keep this incident in the public eye far longer than it deserves. Of course, the likelihood that Sterling will not go quietly into the night means that he will be a ubiquitous presence in the culture until and even after he is tarred and feathered.

And, as if we didn’t know it already, file this away as further confirmation that there is no correlation between wealth, on the one hand, and intelligence or morality on the other.

The Process

Even as the “peace talks” in Israel have collapsed temporarily, the “peace process” lives on, unfortunately. As explained to me two decades ago by a leftist Israeli diplomat, a “process,” by definition, can never fail. Everything – ups and downs, wars and negotiations, terror and concessions – is part of the “process.” A “process” never ends. And yet, thank G-d Israel finds itself today – relatively, and we hope not temporarily – in a stronger strategic position than it has had in years, with new opportunities on the horizon.

One approach suggests that PM Netanyahu has orchestrated the current situation like a master politician. He has clearly learned from the failures of his first tenure, and has focused this term on maintaining his coalition, strengthening the country from within, regularly utilizing the verbiage of peace but without any of the disastrous concessions that marked his earlier term in the late 1990s. It is not that he has been flawless – there is no logic or morality in releasing murderers from prison in exchange for “talks” – but even that is more demoralizing to the nation than it has long-term strategic consequences.

In symbols and words, Netanyahu keeps alive for both domestic and international purposes the illusion that “peace” is possible and is thwarted only by the obstinacy and hatred of the Arab foe. And, unlike his first term, he eschews media interviews or statements, except on his terms and at the time and place of his choosing. He thereby avoids the sharks in the Israel media, which consists disproportionately of unrepentant leftists who actually believe that “peace” is likely if hundreds of thousands of Jews are expelled from their homes in the heartland of Israel and a “Palestinian state” is formed. (The provenance of that fantasy is a lingering mystery.) Leaders who constantly appear on television, speak on radio or regularly give interviews to journalists, ultimately cheapen their message, enable distortions, find themselves caught in contradictions, become very defensive and engender fatigue among their constituents. (Memo to Obama: less is more.)

Of course, that is one approach. The alternate scenario, almost as plausible, is that Netanyahu genuinely believes that some accommodation with the Palestinians is possible, that he is prepared to make the unspecified but frightening “painful concessions” such a treaty might entail, that much is going on behind the scenes that is not known, that he wants to secure his legacy, etc. That is why he surrounded himself with acknowledged leftists and peaceniks, and even designated Tzipi Livni as the lead negotiator, notwithstanding that she and her party were not needed to form a coalition. She bought him credibility with the media and international diplomats.

Oddly, even those close to Netanyahu do not know his true feelings or direction, but one thing is undeniable: the murkiness of his views has enabled both parties of the right and those that lean left to participate in his government, and that – on balance – centrist government has been able to forge a number of accomplishments in spheres which really matter to people. The coalition is secure (in terms of Israeli politics), and its stability is undoubtedly aided by an opposition that is weak, aimless and occasionally shrill.

Given the hostility (masquerading as evenhandedness) of the American president, it is hard to conjure a better scenario than the freezing of talks, even if the US administration chooses to blame “both sides” for the impasse. It is impossible to justify the bizarre notion that Israel must pay the Arabs in advance to negotiate its own surrender, or make preemptive concessions to satisfy the atavistic Arab need for dominance over Jews. It is good to hear a “no” from Israeli diplomats and its Prime Minister. Ad kan. If the focus shifts away from empty negotiations to improving the material situation on the ground – as Naftali Bennett has long advocated – everyone benefits, Jews and Arabs.

Nevertheless, the dynamic of “negotiations” and “talks” and “peace process” (and signing ceremonies) is so ingrained in the international diplomatic culture that it is hard to see a way in which the current suspension will last an appreciable amount of time. No one is willing to concede the obvious –that peace is not coming in this generation or the next, and possibly never, and that Israel can live quite well with the status quo. The charade must continue. Provocation – i.e., terror – is a familiar Arab tool that changes the equation. The wordsmiths at Foggy Bottom are proficient at finding the precise formulations that say nothing to real people in the real world but promote further diplomacy.

For example, I have never been enamored with the gambit that insists that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” For obvious reasons, that terminology sticks in their craw – but if they had any sense, they would say it. Mouth the words. They don’t have to mean it, and they can retract it the next day. They can even say “Israel is a Jewish state!” to great international fanfare and mutter under their breath “that is why we want to destroy it.” It’s only words, and thus foolish to make concessions for empty words. The fact that Abbas and his corrupt crew cannot bring themselves to say it – knowing the goodies that would come their way if they did –is a powerful indication of the dysfunctional Jew hatred that permeates their society. But can they find a way to murmur something along those lines? Sure. And then what?

Among the persistent myths that fuel the “process” is the notion that Fatah is moderate, Hamas is extremist, but there are elements in Hamas that are also moderate. Thus, the PA is trying to spin the unity agreement with Hamas as reflecting the moderation of Hamas. Of course, it could just as readily reflect the extremization of Fatah, as if they need to be extremized. The difference between the two groups of murderous terrorists is that they usually are rivals with each other, Hamas murders Jews and boasts about while Fatah murders Jews and condemns the cycle of violence, Fatah leaders wear neckties whereas Hamas leaders favor the open shirt, and Fatah mouths words that enable them to be subsidized by the willfully gullible West. Both groups would like to see the destruction of Israel, although Fatah seems more patient. Neither should be trusted by Israel.

Israel finds itself in strong position as it nears its 66th anniversary. Egypt under its new leadership has moved closer to Israel’s interests, Syria is torn apart by an endless and deadly civil war, Lebanon and Iraq are neutralized. Iran remains an existential threat, with the tip of its spear – Hezbollah – looming on Israel’s northern border. But the prospect of an Iranian bomb – which Obama will never obstruct militarily and is currently facilitating diplomatically – has brought together Israel and Saudi Arabia in an unprecedented alliance born of the convergence of their national interests.

Additionally, the demographic demon that has bedeviled two generations of Israeli policy makers has been laid to rest. The Jewish population of Israel is enjoying phenomenal growth, in both the secular and (even more so) the religious sectors. The Arab population is in decline, owing to a dramatically lower birthrate and steady emigration. Those who feared for decades that Arabs would soon outnumber Israelis are finding those concerns baseless, and those who nonetheless keep citing old and flawed statistics of the demo graphic nightmare – discredited now for more than a decade – are polemicists first and not at all objective policymakers. Their ideology trumps their reason. There are some writers who persist in reporting that Israel is “five minutes to midnight,” on the brink of self-destruction unless concessions are made, and quickly. The first time I saw that formulation was, I believe, in 1982, written by the Israel-bashing NY Times columnist Anthony Lewis. I guess the clock must have stopped at some point.

That being said, the last thing Israel needs – and, based on precedent, the road down which it will travel – is complacency. Whatever “is” at the moment will not necessarily stay that way in the future, even the near future. The very nature of the hostile elements that confront Israel ensure that the situation is always fluid. That is why it is important to influence events and not just allow events to dictate the course of policy.

Therefore, Israel should take this opportunity to conduct a funeral – and bury the two-state solution once and for all. It was always a pipedream, going back to 1937 and certainly 1947, that Arabs would countenance the existence of a Jewish state on what they construe to be Muslim land. Nothing has changed to alter that conclusion. Everyone recognizes that even the treaties that Israel has with some neighbors – Egypt, Jordan – are inherently fragile and vulnerable to changes in government. In the 1970s, a Palestinian state was deemed to be antithetical to Israel’s existence, and advocates of such were construed as implacable haters of Israel. A cursory perusal of some of the speeches of, for example, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin (whose political views generally were polar opposites) reveal that both explicitly stated numerous times that a Palestinian state posed an existential threat to Israel.

In the forty years hence, and despite all the rhetoric, negotiations, fantasies and concessions, their words ring even more true today.  Such a Palestinian state – without any resources, much less legitimacy – could only find its purpose as a base from which to destroy Israel. When all is said and done, the best PR flacks in the world have not been able to construct a coherent historical narrative that could justify the creation of such a state. It would have only one purpose – to be the instrument that could wage a total destructive war against Israel – and before the Palestinians became international darlings, such was even conceded openly by other Arab leaders.

Caroline Glick, in her powerful new book “The Israeli Solution,” articulates in a very compelling way why the demise of the ‘two-state solution’ is obvious and imperative. (Caroline will be speaking at our shul on Sunday, May 11, at 8:00 PM, for those interested.) Her book, for one thing, should be mandatory reading in every yeshiva high school, because its overview of Israel’s history and the failed diplomacy going back decades –the retread of the same unsuccessful initiative under new names and with new advocates – is informative and comprehensive. It will equip every college student with the knowledge to confound and confront all the disinformation and propaganda they will encounter in their schools.

One need not agree with every policy prescription to realize the enormous contribution this new book makes to the debate. I would not be so quick to offer full citizenship to every Arab in Judea and Samaria, even if the demographics justify it; not every individual living in a democratic society has the right to become a citizen and vote in national elections. Americans certainly realize this, hosting here some 11,000,000 illegal aliens and 13,000,000 legal resident aliens, according to 2011 statistics. And America’s non-citizens are not generally hostile to the polity as are Israel’s non-citizens.

What is most refreshing about her book, though, is the willingness to look anew at an intractable situation and the recognition that the lives of people – real living, breathing people, both Jews and Arabs – will be greatly enhanced by the abandonment of what obviously will not work and the embrace of what might work. As anyone familiar with her writings can attest, Caroline Glick is fearless, passionate, and keenly analytical. The empty cliché “two states for two peoples,” which wafts through the air like pollen and is equally insufferable, is simply not grounded in reality. It will never come to fruition as its fantasists imagine.

It is high time that we realize that, state the obvious, and recall the admonitions of the 1970s and 1980s, all still viable today. Now is the perfect time for that. Israel can prosper in the current environment; it can thrive even more when the “two state solution” is buried and more realistic means of accommodation are entertained. That dose of sanity could even energize the “process” and provide full employment for a new generation of diplomats.

 

Permanent Relief

The destruction of the army of Egypt at the Red Sea, whose 3326th anniversary will be marked this Monday, did not just provide the Jewish people with a momentary respite from conflict but was intended to be an eternal victory. The people cried out to G-d, and Moshe told them: “Do not be afraid. Stand, and see the salvation of G-d, for even as you see the Egyptians today, you will not see them ever again” (Shemot 14:13).

Indeed, it was so. Pharaoh’s army was crushed, and his empire smashed. We would have new enemies, but Egypt would not surface again for centuries – and even then it was a different Egypt. The question is: why was this necessary? At the Red Sea, the Jews were in danger of being massacred, and all they wanted was to be saved, to live another day. “Let us live today, and we will worry about 100 years from now 100 years from now!” Was it necessary to guarantee eternal relief? Who can think centuries ahead when we are focused on living until tomorrow?

It is interesting that Ramban quotes the Mechilta that “you will not see [the Egyptians] ever again” is “an eternal prohibition, for all generations.” But what exactly is the mitzvah here?

Apparently, the splitting of the Red Sea was not only a miraculous rescue but was also intended to transform our thinking and national self-image. We could not function as a nation as long as the specter of the Egyptian monster loomed over our heads. Had the Egyptians been defeated but survived, we would have made it to the other side of the sea but still remained fearful slaves (in our own minds, fugitives) always expecting the omnipotent master to return and subjugate us. We needed finality, closure – to put our trepidation of Egypt behind us so we could move forward – and just serve and revere G-d.

How important is this? Extremely. It is what we lack now and it underlies all the anxiety that we feel during these days of waiting – Iran, Kerry, PLO, interminable negotiations. There has been an obvious decrease in terror and death in Israel over the last number of years, due primarily to the substantial and powerful presence of Israeli forces in Arab towns and villages, even notwithstanding this week’s brutal murder of a distinguished Israeli police commander en route with his wife and children to a seder in Kiryat Arba. Terror cannot be stopped entirely, as long as the will to perpetrate it remains among the evildoers. Crime still exists even though there are policemen, and disease still exists even though there are doctors and researchers.

But despite the successes of the last decade – due to the physical presence in the cities, the denial of work permits and free passage, cutting off the flow of money, and even the presence of a security wall – everything still seems temporary, ad hoc. It has worked so well that it is constantly suggested that Israel withdraw from the cities and towns, increase the number of work permits and allow free passage, transfer millions of dollars, free terrorists and relax the security apparatus. Those who ask for an easing of checkpoints are essentially acquiescing to Jewish deaths. Haven’t we heard this all before? And how long will it be until the cycle of terror, death and mayhem is restored?

It is all so predictable and pathetic, and all because there is no hope of closure – no matter which Abu rules the Arab roost. The Netziv wrote (Harchev Davar, Devarim 33:11) that there is much we can learn from the difference between the wars of Shaul and David. King Shaul conquered his enemies and plundered their lands – but just sowed the seeds for future conflict. King David, instead, conquered his enemies and occupied their lands – installing his own rulers and eventually subduing the indigenous population. Shaul’s victories were never conclusive – so he reigned during a period of endless war. David’s wars brought ultimate peace and tranquility – unlike Shaul’s wars or Israel’s wars today. Of course, the distinction is not just a matter of strategy, but also depends on the merit of the generation and its leaders.

“Stand, and see the salvation of G-d.” Victory is possible – if our goals are clear, if our commitment is unflinching, and if our faith is unwavering. The enemy today is less powerful than the Egyptians of old, but some of us are still fond of helplessness – “leave us alone and we will just serve Egypt” (Shemot 14:12), better Red than dead. The advocates of this approach – some of whom presently conduct Israel’s negotiations with the Arabs – have talked it into themselves that partitioning Israel again and creating another terrorist state is actually in Israel’s interests.

That attitude is seductive. But “you will not see [the Egyptians] ever again” is “an eternal prohibition, for all generations.” It is prohibited to despair, as it is prohibited to think that our history is all politics and diplomacy and nothing else. But it is not prohibited to believe that we can vanquish our enemies on our own; those are the lessons that G-d entrusted to us when we left Egypt under His protective hand. David’s kingdom endures, not Shaul’s – and it is David’s song of triumph over his enemies that is recorded for posterity.

“You will not see [the Egyptians] ever again” is the measure of victory and the barometer of peace – that our enemies will never again threaten us because their empire has been removed from history. If we can’t achieve that in the short term, then at least we benefit in defining that as the objective. As King David sang (II Shmuel 22:5-6, 31, 50) “When the pains of death encircled me and the torrents of godless men frightened me…then G-d is a shield to all who take refuge in Him… Therefore I will thank You G-d among the nations and sing to Your name”, as we await the days when “He does kindness to His anointed one, to David and his descendants, forever.”

 

Awakening Injustice

JTA reported this week that a Solomon Schechter affiliated day school in suburban Philadelphia unilaterally decertified its teachers’ union and will no longer negotiate with it, claiming that, as a religious institution, the school is exempt from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. The union was a member of the American Federation of Teachers. This is but another assault on the integrity of the labor union movement. Horrors!

It sounds like a job for Uri L’tzedek.

That organization is a self-styled campaigner for “Orthodox Social Justice,” that is to say, the pursuit of “social justice” by Orthodox Jews. That qualification is added because it seems that their targets, and not just their inspiration, have been almost exclusively Orthodox Jews and companies run by Orthodox Jews.

Undoubtedly, they have some fine achievements to their credit in ensuring the rights of workers and the downtrodden. In employee matters, in essence, they have sought the enforcement of laws that already exist (such as minimum wage, overtime, working conditions, etc.), which sounds redundant except when one considers that not every employee or group of employees has advocates that can address their grievances.

But the very term “social justice” has never inspired confidence among conservatives because justice qualified is often justice denied. “Social” justice seems to imply justice only for a certain segment of the population perceived as less fortunate than others. Justice, then, for the employer, business owner, taxpayer, etc. must be sought elsewhere and presumably by others. That is not justice at all.

Indeed, the Torah is quite clear on this matter. Notwithstanding society’s obligation to assist the poor and the downtrodden, we are admonished: “Do not glorify the destitute in his [legal] grievance” (Shemot 23:3), and Rashi explains that we should not show any special deference (“honor”) to justify the legal claim of the poor just because he is poor. Justice is a universal principle, and not the province of any one group.

Thus, rather than represent “Orthodox Social Justice,” this organization adheres to fairly doctrinaire leftist political views under the guise of a few well selected platitudes drawn from our sacred literature, and very selectively applied. For example, is there a Torah position on a minimum wage, or on increasing the minimum wage by a certain number of dollars per hour? Not that I know of. Indeed, one can make a cogent argument that any minimum wage upsets the equilibrium through which employers and employees negotiate the relative value of salary versus services provided. It sounds good in theory (and to an extent has worked well in practice) but increases in the minimum wage generally bring reduced employment at those entry level jobs (in addition to driving up employment costs for higher wage employees whose wages are linked to a certain multiple of the minimum wage). Wouldn’t it be “just” to allow a potential employee, faced with a choice between unemployment or employment at a reduced wage, to make that choice himself, freely? The advocates of “social justice” say a hearty, and somewhat self-righteous, “no.” But the poor pay the price for that self-righteousness.

This is not to advocate for or against a minimum wage but a simple recognition that “justice” is not to be found on only one side of the argument, and that such leftist propaganda should not be allowed to masquerade as “Torah” or as “Orthodox.”

Or, to take another example drawn from Uri L’tzedek’s own writings, they claim to seek protections for both documented and undocumented workers. “Undocumented workers” is leftist slang for illegal aliens, who have no residence documents, presumably because they sneaked into the country and therefore could not procure the appropriate documents from the authorities, like, for instance, at a border crossing. Certainly, no person should be mistreated but nor is any person above the law. But how to deal with illegal aliens is ultimately a political, not a moral, question, and certainly not one for which the “Torah” presents clear guidelines. One can make a compelling moral argument that illegal aliens should be afforded rights, protections, amnesty, family unification, etc., even assuming they have to pay some penalty for their prior felonious conduct. But one can make an equally compelling moral argument that a nation has the right (maybe even in our dangerous world where terrorists lurk everywhere seeking to exploit vulnerabilities, the obligation) to secure its borders, deport illegal entrants and determine who can enter and when, and especially when the financial cost of sustaining, educating and healing the newcomers will be largely borne by the indigenous citizenry.

Is there a “Torah” view on how to solve the US immigration problem? Not that I know of. It is a political, not a moral, decision. Should one take purely political positions and masquerade them as “Torah”? I think not. Should an organization that purports to fight for “justice” aid those who are willfully breaking the law or actively seek the non-enforcement of laws duly enacted by a civilized, democratic society? I think not. There is no right to selectively choose to follow certain laws and not others and certainly no justice in the outcome.

Which brings us to the topic de jour. This week the intrepid battlers for “social justice” waded into a public school funding controversy in Monsey, New York, my old hometown. With the population now overwhelmingly Orthodox, even Haredi, the public school board in Ramapo is controlled by Orthodox citizens who want the dominant voice in deciding how their tax dollars are allocated to the public schools. That is the reality of demographics and public policy, one not unfamiliar to us in New Jersey. It seems both fair and just.

There has always been a basic inequity that requires Orthodox parents to pay for their own children’s education and simultaneously pay for their secular neighbor’s children’s public school education. This dual taxation has crippled many Orthodox families, and significantly increased the pressure on the breadwinner to earn salaries disproportionately higher than the norms of American life just to subsist.

For sure, I recognize the need for a public school system and our obligations as citizens to subsidize it. But the polity would have to educate our children anyway, and we are obviously providing a great savings to our neighbors (not to mention a better education for our children, for the most part) by paying for it ourselves.

There are jurisdictions that take note of this inequity, and have found ways (for one, government vouchers that allot a certain stipend per student and allow parents to choose any school, public or private, for their children) to offset the costs on the Orthodox families. School districts could assume the financial responsibility for the secular educational component of a yeshiva education without any constitutional unrest. There are many other jurisdictions – the norm, really – in which the school board votes itself (or its teachers and staff) annual increases, luxurious facilities, and generous pensions. Where Orthodox Jews live but are not the majority, we pay for it disproportionately, and it is an onerous tax burden. Teacher salaries and the quality of the facilities at Yeshivot lag way behind that of the secular system. Justice and fairness would seem to favor equity.

Yet, this week, a caped crusader from Uri L’Tzedek (literally; he apparently wore a talit to the press conference, and not that I have anything against people who wear capes) lambasted the Haredi control of the Ramapo school system and demanded a state takeover. He apparently advocates high taxation without any representation. The job of the school board is to ensure a quality education for its students, which does not always require more money, and at the least to verify that all its students actually reside in the district and are not interlopers from elsewhere. The main complaint seems to be the loss of jobs, which troubles the teachers’ unions but not anyone who perceives the declining enrollment due to the change in demographics. Others decry the loss of perks to which they had grown accustomed when the Orthodox alone paid for them.

One complaint stood out: that crime has allegedly increased in the Ramapo public school system because the Haredi-controlled school board cut the funding for school security guards. That is a startling complaint with interesting ramifications. I doubt there is even one security guard in any yeshiva, which somehow does not translate into a crime rate of any sort. Perhaps the problem lies not in the absence of security guards but in the dearth of morals.

It seems that Uri L’tzedek in its eagerness for “social justice” has lost sight of some basic principles. First, just because Haredim do or say something does not necessarily mean they are wrong or unjust (!). Second, justice does not always lie with the teachers v. the administrators, with the unions v. the owners, with the employees v. the employers, with the illegal alien v. the citizen, with the tenants v. the landlords, with the non-Orthodox v. the Orthodox, and with the non-Jew v. the Jew. Usually, true justice is somewhere in between.

To be taken seriously by anyone outside the far-left echo chamber and its media acolytes, they should broaden their world view just a bit. Will the Perelman Jewish Day School outside Philadelphia soon behold the protests of the caped crusader and his union allies, and feel the daggers of the do-gooders? Or is the school exempt from such demonstrations because it is not Orthodox? We shall see. I hope the Samaritans desist only because it is none of their business how a real business operates its business, as long as it is legal and ethical. And even then it is none of their business, but the business of the authorities.

To paraphrase a recent book in a related context, this new group sees the Torah as a “useful ally” when it confirms its biases but otherwise can be safely ignored. Generally, it is conventionally a creation of the left and reflecting the values of the left. To be fair, even in that, it invariably serves a legitimate purpose in keeping the Jewish people always striving for ethical improvements. But it cannot be done in a heavy-handed, dogmatic and reflexively biased way, but with more balance, forethought and sensitivity. In Monsey, for one example, it has allied itself with the wrong people and with the wrong cause.

Just wondering: does this union of humanitarians investigate the business practices of its donors? The media always love the liberal watchdogs, but who exactly is watching the watchdogs?

 

Defense? Hardly

Well, in a week, I went from being anti-Haredi to pro-abuser, at least to my detractors. Of course, I am neither, but why did I write a letter seeking lenient treatment for someone who pleaded guilty to a number of grave and lascivious crimes? And why, given the exact same circumstances (Heaven forbid), would I do it again?

I hesitate to mention names and details because of the unseemliness of the matter. To my detractors, I have been accused of “defending” an abuser and justifying his conduct. But seeking the court’s mercy for a particular miscreant is not the same as defending him, justifying him, downplaying his crimes or asserting his innocence. It is certainly not the same as blaming the victim, being insensitive to their plight, or encouraging more abuse. It is exactly what it sounds like: the young man in question was facing a minimum of ten years in prison. I asked the judge to exercise mercy and sentence him to ten years. Ten years is a long time.

I’m the first to tell victims to come forward, press charges, and tell their stories. I want to see the guilty punished and have to reckon with their crimes. I am sickened when abusers get off scot free or serve minimal time, as happens all too frequently. Ten years is a long time. Can he be rehabilitated? I hope so, but I don’t know. Time will tell. What I can say is that I knew the young man in question for several years, and was shocked (!), disappointed, disheartened and then disgusted by his crimes. But I also refuse to believe that his life has to be over.

There is natural compassion for the victim, and all victims. But that does not rule out having compassion flow in other directions as well. Rav Yisrael Salanter, commenting on the verse (Devarim 32:4) “Our Rock, all His works are perfect, all His ways are just…,” asks: can’t human beings also exercise justice? There are courts and judges and legal systems across the world.   Why are only G-d’s ways just?

He answers that the justice of human beings is by definition limited. Man can only focus on the accused and the crime. But what about the effect of his punishment on the spouse and children, or on the family and friends? The human court is limited in its capacity. It cannot deal as readily with the collateral effects of the punishment. Only G-d, for “all His ways are just,” can execute complete and perfect justice.

A heavy term of incarceration was certainly warranted. But should not someone take into account the effect on his parents? Isn’t there any room in people’s hearts for compassion for them? In the span of just a few years, one son has died and their only other son has self-destructed. They are dealing with other difficulties, as well. Is mercy beyond us? Do we lump all perpetrators together, regardless of whether their crimes are identical? Are we so certain that we know all the facts? The easy route would have been to reject their request for a letter requesting the mercy of the court. But how can anyone reject a plea for compassion? It seems natural. It should be natural.

Compassion for the abuser and his family is not synonymous with indifference to his victims. Interestingly, I had no idea that anyone else had written a letter nor did I learn the identity of the other letter writers until just this week, when the story broke. Apparently, others felt a similar desire to exercise compassion – and not because anyone condoned the heinous conduct in question.

For sure, I understand the victim’s mentality, and that of the victims’ rights groups –  that no compassion is warranted, that any sentence is too short. Perhaps they feel that the death penalty is appropriate here, or at least, its equivalent, life imprisonment. That is not the law, nor do the facts here warrant it. Had the facts been different – the facts, not just the public accusations – my approach would have been different. Not everyone deserves compassion. But I do not expect a victim to see beyond his pain. I wouldn’t, at least I don’t think I would. I believe, for example, that all car thieves should go to prison (most don’t, by the way), except for the guy who steals my car, who deserves death. For worse crimes, he deserves a slow and painful death. But that is why the justice of the mob is not real justice.

I admire all advocates for children’s rights and am sickened by the facts of this case, as they are. But for justice to be meted it fairly, we have to be sure that we don’t pile on to one person all the justified grievances that exist because of all other cases and all other victims. All cases – like all people – are not the same. People have different backgrounds, maladies, experiences, challenges and albatrosses. We should not assume we know everything about a person simply because we read a thumbnail sketch on the internet, in a police blotter, or in an indictment.

Indeed, although I think the outcry here is a bit overdone, I am glad it is happening. These crimes should not be treated lightly or blithely dismissed. I don’t even mind being criticized. It ensures caution. The victim’s feelings should be validated. Potential miscreants need to know that the wrath of the community and the legal system will come down on them, and hard. They should seek professional help before they begin to sin.

Nevertheless, at a certain point, there has to be some compassion as well for the plight of the offender. His life need not be over. Would a 30 year sentence have sufficed for his critics, a 40 year sentence? Death by hanging? I am sure some feel that way, and given other circumstances, I might feel the same way. In the end, the judge sentenced this young man to 13 years in prison. It is a long time. I hope he can get his life together and his mind and morals right. I hope his parents can survive this ordeal. And I hope the victims find their peace as well.

I think I was right in seeking the mercy of the minimum sentence of ten years. I think that the detractors are right in their vigorous opposition to the pleas for mercy.

But sometimes – perhaps most times – one has to be kind, and not just right.

 

 

 

The Exchange, Part 2

     I received a response from my interlocutor, and reprint it fully with some minor editing. To make it easy on the reader, I have interspersed my comments within his response. As he asked not to be anonymous, I include his final salutation. May there be shalom al Yisrael!       – RSP

 E – I hope all is well with you and yours.   May you see Yiddishe nachas from all of them.

Thank you for your response. I did not write this letter to you b’mikreh. To the contrary, I heard about your speech and was shocked. No question that we have very bad PR, and I’m also not claiming that our community is perfect – and thus I can be דן לכף זכות — but there are aspects of your response that are so misleading and false and based more in prejudice than in fact or understanding that I felt a need to respond.

The attached document responds in depth to your points. Don’t be offended but we have to know how to respond to an אפקורוס כגון מאן אמר ר”י כגון הני דאמר מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו א”ל אביי האי מגלה פנים בתורה נמי הוא שכתוב אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חוקות שמים וארץ לא שמתי

SP-    I don’t assume that every Haredi is a “rabbanan” in the language of the Gemara. Most are not. I don’t know why you would assume that. And I thinks the problem here transcends PR.

E – Anyone who has had any actual human contact with Hareidim is generally struck by the extent of giving, rather than taking, that characterizes the community. The Har Nof directory has 36 pages of phone numbers and names of gemachs and community services! That’s not to mention, Hatzala, Zaka, Y‎ad Sara, Zichron Menachem, Yad Eliezer among an endless list of large and effective tzedaka organizations that serve the entire Jewish community, frum and chiloni. The endless time and money and energy spent in the world of kiruv rechokim to  bring unaffiliated Jews back to Avinu Sh’b’Shamayim, whether on college campuses, via outreach kollels or baal teshuva seminaries and yeshivas also largely traced to people who until they were in their mid-20s, sat and ingested Torah values and learning in yeshivas and seminaries. Then they spent the rest of their life living it through tzedaka v’chesed rather than chasing money for themselves. The idea that the Haredi world rests on taking rather than giving simply has no correspondence with reality and you should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting otherwise.

SP – The Haredi community has a plethora of chesed organizations. That is very true and speaks to their essential good hearts. But it is often true that the chesed organizations take the place of actual work because they typically lack a secular education that would enable them to join the work force in normative way, especially in Israel. E.g., I often have people come to my door from Israel – heads of “new” chesed organizations – who are simply collecting money for five families, ten families, twenty families, and of course including their own. The chesed is not without its financial benefit. Let us not ignore that.

     Here in America, people do chesed as well and volunteer for organizations. The local Teaneck volunteer ambulance corps is just that – volunteer. We support many of the organizations you mentioned, but you are ignoring the real story. Most chesed organizations provide services – primary or supplemental – and jobs for the organizers. These are jobs also – but jobs that take money out of the economy cannot substitute for jobs that grow the economy. You do not grow an economy with a plethora of chesed organizations. You just re-distribute income from those who work for it to those who don’t. Much more important are organizations that foster employment. Give a man a fish and you’ve given him a meal; teach a man to fish and you’ve given him a livelihood.

    And most of these organizations exist in some form in the non-Haredi communities as well, but they are not as prevalent simply because they usually deal with hardship cases – the sudden poor caused by illness, death, loss of employment or some other tragedy, not the willful poor. When people choose to be poor they encounter a different dynamic entirely. And kiruv is not limited to Haredim, obviously. The fact that there are 36 pages of gemachs in the Har Nof directory is a sign of kindness, but might it not also be a sign of dysfunction? The lack of otherwise gainful employment? And you would certainly be shocked to hear of the abundant charity organizations run by non-Jews in America. The Haredi – even Jewish – instinct for chesed is admirable, but it is not exclusive to them, and certainly should not substitute for gainful employment.

   Note, also, that the “giving” is exclusively on your terms, and not what the rest of the society needs or is asking for.

E – Nearly all my male Hareidi friends and relatives work and pay over 60% in taxes – meanwhile the Government cut our kids’ school budgets by 50%. My son currently gets no milk in the morning because the budget was cut.  Somebody is stealing my tax money, and it’s not the Haredim.

SP – But those are your friends! And you do come from a different background. The rate of adult-male employment in the Haredi world is one of the lowest – I think it is the lowest – in the industrial world. A recent statistic in the Haredi press “boasted” of a 54% adult male employment rate – but that is extraordinarily low. In the rest of the world, the rate in industrialized countries is around 70%. That means that 46% of adult males are being subsidized by someone else.

   Now, who gets what from the government is always a political question. For decades, the Haredi parties chaired the Knesset Finance Committee and used that position to funnel money to their communal needs at the expense of other communities. The election results turned them out of power, and with it, loss of those sinecures. It is a lamentable aspect of Israeli politics that too many people take care only of their own constituents, but, I guess, that is true of politics everywhere, even here in the US. There is nothing moral about it; it is politics. When the Haredim next join the coalition, it will be back to business as usual. BUT: were the school budgets cut because schools refused to comply with the core curriculum? Because there is an expectation of national service that is not being met? Because of bias? The kibbutzim used to have patrons that took care of them in the Knesset, as did the haredim. They also fluctuated based on electoral outcomes. That’s life. Your tax money is not being stolen – it is just being redirected for other national uses.

    Do you feel you are not getting your fair share of return on your tax dollar? If so, welcome to my world! In Teaneck, the Orthodox community pays more than 60% of the property taxes, and our return in services is less than 20% (mainly because we don’t use the public school system). And, double whammy: New Jersey has the lowest ratio in the nation – 50th out of 50 states – in the return to the state of federal spending based on federal taxes paid, about 60 cents on the dollar. These complaints are universal, not limited to you.

E – How about what Haredi education produces relative to morality? In our schools there is virtually no drugs, sex or violence. There is not a yeshiva in the world that has metal detectors to check its students – how does that compare to the secular system of education?

SP – None of our schools have metal detectors either. And the yeshiva system even here still produces a decent product. The dropout rate in all religious communities is roughly the same. But – what is their educational product? Does the haredi system produce a student who can function in civil society?

      I find it fascinating that your straw man is always the “secular” system or world, as if there exists only this dichotomy: Haredi v. secular. But that is not true. There is an entire world of religious Jews who are neither Haredi nor secular (not that the Haredi world is completely monolithic). You certainly know it from your background, but you know it from Israel as well – the Hardalim, the Dati-Leumi, etc. – people whose lives fully implement the Torah system in the real world, not just theorize about it in the Bet Midrash. I have always assumed that one of the great fears of the Haredi establishment about military service was not the exposure to secular culture but the exposure to Torah Jews who know how to learn Torah, perform mitzvot, fight in G-d’s wars, build a country, get an education, etc. – i.e., a balanced life. That life undercuts the Haredi argument that mandates segregation as the only means to the preservation of Torah.

  E – From high school on, the men’s educational process is focused on Torah. Isn’t it amazing that people without college are nonetheless able to start and operate successful businesses of all kinds, from crafts (plumbing, electrical, contracting) to retails to finance to real estate to start-ups. All without having studied Shakespeare or art history – without knowing how many wives King Henry 8th divorced or beheaded – and without having had to subject themselves to the looseness, depravity and coarseness of midos one finds with such ease on a college campus. But the Israeli Government feels it knows better and wants to impose its standards on our time-tested curriculum. Not a culture war? Really?

I am an investment banker and have raised over 50 million dollars for Israeli companies supporting hundreds of secular families. Nearly all the owners of those businesses are secular — They love me and I love them ( I don’t hide my peyot) certainly not in Teaneck. My Partners supports hundreds if not thousands of Israelis in construction, law, accounting, security, insurance, architecture and engineering, to name a few, via his real estate business. I have another close friend who moved his family here to open a baal teshuva yeshiva that is one of the largest employers in its neighborhood. We all pay taxes here. All of my friends and peers are busy with tzedaka projects – many if not most not content just to give money, but insistent upon giving time and effort and talent as well. All this in addition to commitment to regular Torah learning. Is that really a hateful existence?

SP- Here is the crux of the issue. You are not typical, obviously. They are many Haredi businessmen, many successful Haredi businessmen. But you know they are not typical of Haredi society, unless you are asserting that what is perceived as the endemic poverty in the Haredi world is a “secular” myth . I also don’t care how many wives Henry VIII (or for that matter, the VII) had – but I do care that in today’s world, children learn English, math, science, writing skills, even Jewish history and Jewish philosophy. An eighth grade knowledge of those subjects is as embarrassing as an eighth grade Torah education (or, as it might be, a fourth grade education).

   It is interesting that Haredim in America have never embraced the value system of Haredim in Israel, at least not until recently. Some went to college, some didn’t (there are even online colleges today for which you almost never need to leave home) – but all knew they would have to support families someday, and not through starting chesed organizations. An educational system that produces bnai Torah, good citizens (I’ll add – Ahavat Yisrael of all types, Ahavat Eretz Yisrael, and a willingness to fight for it as Haredim did in 1948) who can support themselves and help others would be embraced by all, even the secular. No one intends to produce violent, depraved, backwards, drug-addled, parasitic, drunken miscreants. Not all secular schools produce the latter, like not all haredi schools produce the former. That’s reality.

E – How about the families that you so revile where the husband is learning in Kollel? Let’s check a few facts here. The government used to help with $200 a month; Lapid and Bennet cut it to almost nothing!  The average hareidi family has about 8 children. We pay 18% vat tax on all we consume. Do you really think these families live on Government handouts? In these families the wives are all working (did you assume they were home redesigning their kitchens, eating bon-bons, shopping at our equivalent of the Short Hills mall or Nordstroms and filing their nails?). Do you have a similar problem when one of your secular friends has a wife who works and the husband stays home? I never heard anyone ever complain about that concept. So why is it that a family that is willing to forego all the pleasures of the olam ha-gashmi to pursue a self-sacrificing spiritually oriented existence voluntarily, supported in dignity by a working wife who believes in the primacy of Torah study be so reviled by you?

SP – I don’t revile anyone! Chas Veshalom! I love all Jews. But I still fail to see why the government – someone else’s tax dollars – is obligated to support someone in kollel. Find a Zevulun, a private benefactor. Similarly, I fail to see why the government – someone else’s tax dollars – would be obligated to support a talented artist, poet or basketball player. Is it the same? Of course not, based on my value system. But the Tel Avivian who has not yet been attracted to Torah has a different value system. Don’t tell me – tell him why he has to pay for yours.

    Better question: how many extra hours should my children in Israel work every week in order to support those who wish to learn full-time? And what if they would rather use those extra hours to learn Torah themselves? Why is that option foreclosed?

    I also have no secular friends, not that I’m proud of that! Then again, I don’t get out much. But I do think it is troubling if a wife works to support her husband and the family. Ultimately, as we know from our world, it causes real shalom bayit issues. But I don’t judge. If it works for them, it’s fine with me. In fact, the only cases I know of secular families in which the wife works and the husband doesn’t (the Mr. Mom dynamic) is where the husband has temporarily lost his job or is incapable of working. But if a Haredi family chooses that – tavo aleihem bracha – but just don’t expect the rest of society to subsidize it.

E – With large families the Hareidim are massive spenders on consumption and investment in Israel.  Ask Osem or Pampers or Simalec. Or anyone in the world of real estate and contruction. As consumers we give back a multiple of what we “take”.

SP – I’m not sure your statistics are accurate. But this is: EVERYBODY pays VAT, everybody pays taxes, and everyone consumes. They just make different consumption choices. And I must be missing something: if Haredim are such massive spenders on consumption, real estate, etc., why is a cut in school milk money so devastating? Ha’ikar chaser min hasefer – something essential is missing from your argument.

E – All this is without any reference to the spiritual value of what we contribute to our society – which as a rabbi and learner I hope you might at least modestly appreciate……אפקורוס כגון מאן אמר ר”י כגון הני דאמר מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו א”ל אביי האי מגלה פנים בתורה נמי הוא שכתוב אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חוקות שמים וארץ לא שמתי

As far as the Rambam, please see the attached. There are almost 30 poskim listed who disagree with the Rambam, including the Mechaber in three places.  In addition, we can probably agree that the Brisker Ruv’s son, R’ Moshe’s son and R’ Aharon’s grandson know a thing or two about the Rambam  — yet they attended.

Like you, I grew up with Zionism uber alas. But we did not hate the Haredim . I told a friend of Bennett’s ( to paraphrase Golda Meir) that I can forgive him for stealing our money, starving the avreichim, and supporting legislation to jail our kids … but I can’t forgive him for causing me to hate him‎ and causing you to hate me.

SP – I appreciate everyone’s Talmud Torah. I just don’t genuflect before the altar of those who insist that Haredi Talmud Torah is superior, nor to those who think their Ahavat Yisrael is superior. Every person – groups – has strengths and weaknesses.

    One of the bigger mistakes of the Haredi world is projecting the sense that their Judaism is more authentic than everyone else’s and therefore deserves the support of others. It is not. The Haredi world has strengths and weaknesses like any other group. Indeed, there are many things that the Haredi world can teach other Torah Jews and many things that the Haredi world needs to learn from other Torah Jews. But the Haredi world is trying to recreate something that never existed, and thus has run into problems.

     And – whatever you, I or others might say – the Rambam is still the Rambam. People do disagree with the Rambam, but they haven’t refuted his basic idea, which has turned out to be spot on: Kava me’or hadat. People have lost respect for the Torah lifestyle because of the Haredi estrangement from general society, not grown in respect. And, obviously, there are many Rabbanim who have an interest in keeping the status quo, or fear a public dissent from it.

    But, there was a time when Haredim understood this as well. In last Friday’s Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Stewart Weiss, whose son Ari hy”d fell in battle while protecting Jewish life, including this observation from post-1948:      “Indeed, no less a figure than the late Grand Rebbe of Gur – a Chassidic leader far ahead of his time – appealed to the yeshiva world to break down the wall of separation and allow yeshiva students to do their fair share in “giving back” to the nation. If they did not, he warned presciently, they would eventually provoke major animosity and resentment from the general public, resulting in a terrible Chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. Tragically, the Rebbe’s plea was rejected, the number of yeshiva exemptions grew exponentially, and the problem was left to simmer and boil. Now, the polarization and hatred it has created has divided our nation and been laid bare for all to see.

   I tell you that it is critical not to hate. I don’t hate Haredim at all, although I do feel sorry for many who – as they have told me – feel trapped. And you should not hate anyone, r”l, especially Naphtali Bennett. I have met him several times, he even has some good Teaneck roots. He is a wonderful person, very dedicated to Klal Yisrael. He really believes he is helping Haredim (I think he is right) – not just with the army but with entering the work force. He knows – you know – the present economics are unsustainable. The people who were paying for it no longer want to pay for it, secular and religious. And you know as well that permanent exemptions from army service or employment are also not sustainable. That is the society in which you live. Do not forget that all this came about because the High Court ruled that the current system was inequitable and therefore unlawful. Even the present Shaked Bill which Haredim so revile might not pass muster! But the status quo could not go on much longer, as the Gerrer Rebbe anticipated.

E – In the world of Israeli kiruv (just like the global phenomenon) there’s an amazing reality: virtually all who become frum — and there are well over 100k — become chareidim (of one form or another). They all grew up interacting with the datei Leumi, yet when push comes to shove, that’s not the lifestyle and community they choose. How odd for such a highly educated and unbiased (other than the extreme anti-Haredi bias they are raised with) to choose such a different way of life (one that will surely bring them no prestige or power or connections). How strange that they choose to join what you view as a cult of takers and uncaring, non-contributing families and individuals. Somehow the appeal of authentic and committed Torah and Yiddishkeit weighs more than the alternative.

The official prayer for the army? We love the soldiers and pray for them every day. In times of stress and war our shuls are full of people davening and saying Tehillim and personal prayers. We also cry when they fall, and Hatzola and unfortunately Zaka are there to pick them up! We don’t need the nusach of the chief Rabbi; we have Chazal אחינו כל בית ישראל……

With love,

Ephraim

SP- I think you are right about the kiruv statistics (not in our part of the world, of course). That is because the cloistered life poses fewer challenges, and I can see why a baal teshuva would want to sever any connection with his prior life even if not all do. But the balanced life appeals to others – not violations of halacha, r’l, but just a comfort level interacting with the rest of society.

   Your last paragraph is the most troubling, because in your entire response, you neglected to address one key point: the rejection of army service. That is bad enough – haacheichem tavou lamilchama v’atem teshvu po? – but the reluctance to say the accepted tefila for Tzahal wins no friends in the dati-leumi community. Must you be different just to be different? Are you still fighting Herzl? Is tefila really a substitute for actual participation in national defense or national service?

  If so, perhaps then you can relate to this analogy: the dati leumi community (we’ll try to get the seculars involved as well) will offer heartfelt tefilot in our own way and of our own composition for the material success of the Haredim. You just won’t get any money from the government and the society you so disdain. That would be too practical.

With blessings for continued success, your friend who loves, values and respects you,

 Steven Pruzansky

An Exchange

Earlier this week, I was contacted by an old friend who now lives in Israel, part of the Chareidi world. He sent me his thoughts, and I responded, and the exchange is reproduced below, with minor editing. I have deleted the friend’s name.   -RSP

6 Adar II 5774, March 8, 2014

Dear Steven,

Ahead of the mass gathering of Torah true Jewry scheduled to take place tomorrow in Manhattan, I’m reaching out to you, our brothers in America, to share with you the sad truth: here, in the State of Israel, Torah Jewry is subject to religious persecution.

To classify Torah students as “criminals,” subject to imprisonment, is only the latest and most absurd of anti-chareidi laws enacted recently by the government. In addition, they have  drastically cut education and welfare budgets, aiming to choke our yeshivos and schools, and even our individual religious freedoms, so prized by Americans and citizens of democracies worldwide.

Under the deceptive mantra of ‘sharing the burden’ the government is responsible for a wave of unprecedented incitement against chareidim, thereby splitting the nation. It is no secret that the objective of conscripting Torah scholars is a thinly disguised attempt at social engineering.

Is it conceivable that a Jewish government in Israel is trying to prevent its citizens from living Torah-true lives in the tradition that their ancestors for generations were moser nefesh for?

As you prepare to gather to offer heartfelt tefillos tomorrow, please remember that the train of persecution of lomdei Torah has already left the station and that there is no doubt that it is more difficult to stop a train that is already moving than to prevent it from leaving. But we must not despair and have to try to raise the alert, and to make all possible efforts to change things, before the train picks up speed. Because the route this train is heading towards leads directly to the abyss.

We know that the heart of Torah-true American Jewry beats together with its brethren in Eretz Yisrael, and senses that the danger to Torah observance in the Holy Land is a danger to the entire Jewish world. We believe that you recognize that learning and living Torah in Eretz Yisrael in holiness and purity is the basis for the existence of Torah true Yiddishkeit in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora.

And therefore, grasp onto the craft of our fathers, and plead to Hashem that He protect and send salvation to all those who seek His yeshuos, so that shomrei Torah and lomdei Torah throughout will be able to continue to draw upon the eitz chaim, the tree of life, of the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel, that sustains us all.

Sincerely,
(Name deleted)
Your brother in Eretz Yisrael

———————————————————————————–

Dear ———:

It is great to hear from you and I hope you and the family are well, but I must part company with you on this issue, and I will not be participating in the rally today. In fact, I denounced it yesterday – even noted (based on a Midrash at the beginning of Vayikra) that there is such a concept of a “Talmid chacham she-ein bo da’at.”   Here is why:

Chareidim make a mistake in thinking that only the Lapid-led diehard seculars have a growing contempt for them. The dati-leumi community is also increasingly hostile, because they sense – to me, accurately – that the Chareidi community is causing hatred for Torah. It is impossible to explain to – take, for one example – my nephew, who learned in Hesder and completed his army service, why his Talmud Torah is somehow inferior to that of Chareidim. It is not. Perhaps his Talmud Torah is the same, but the Charedi world’s “Nosei b’ol im chaveiro” is completely absent. That deficiency in Ahavat Yisrael is glaring, noticed and the reason why the society at large no longer tolerates it.

It is unconscionable that there exists in the Chareidi world this idea that work and army service are beneath them, and that the rest of society which they hold in contempt must work and pay higher taxes in order to support them in order that they should sit and learn. I too would love to sit and learn, and have someone support me, but that is not the system that Hashem set up. Odd, indeed, that the Rambam’s clear statement (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10-11) is ignored, if it is even taught. But when he speaks of “kavah me’or hadat,” that is exactly what has happened, and solely because the Chareidi world has not fully embraced the Torah. That construct of the Chareidi world as practiced today is unprecedented in Jewish history.
The Chareidi lifestyle as currently constituted is unsustainable. Everyone knows it, even their gedolim know it – but many are afraid to speak the truth for fear of physical attacks or peer reproach. They are literally trapped in a different era, using the language of Czarist Russia, Antiochus and Purim to describe a government that is the biggest financial supporter of Torah in the world. That is not leadership. I fully endorse the notion of a Yissachar-Zevulun relationship for as long as the parties agree, but no Yissachar has the right to force someone else – the whole society? – to be a Zevulun. That is simply not part of the Torah system.

What is wrong with all Jews participating in national defense? Or, if for whatever reason Chareidim feel they cannot, what is wrong with even Chareidim doing national service – helping out in nursing homes, teaching Torah in deprived communities, even doing chesed work for a year or two? That is known as giving back to society. One can’t only take; one must give as well. Certainly, as Rav Dessler emphasized repeatedly, giving – not taking – is the essence of the righteous person. When I learned in Israel, I thought it quite natural to participate in the national defense. I didn’t necessarily enjoy – at the time – the loss of sleep because of overnight patrols, but I am happy I did it, and only benefited from it, even in terms of Talmud Torah. How can Zaka take time off from learning to pick up the pieces, r”l, after a terrorist attack? Why can’t the same people work to thwart the terrorist attack in the first place?
Indeed, the army doesn’t really need Chareidi service as much as the Chareidim – for halachic and moral reasons – need it for themselves. But army service is mainly a portal into the work force, and that is key. The rate of employment in the Israeli Chareidi community is simply too low. The work force participation rate of adult males in Bnei Brak, Betar Illit, Kiryat Sefer, etc., is scandalous. Perhaps that is the true “war on Torah,” because the impression given that one cannot be a Torah Jew and a Talmid Chacham – and work and support one’s family – is an outrageous canard. All the Tannaim and Amoraim worked for a living. The greatest of our people – Avraham, Moshe, Yehoshua, David, etc. – all went to war when necessary. The Torah exempts four classes of people from battle: the scholar is not one of the exemptions, for Jewish wars especially require the participation of Talmidei Chachamim.

I am inclined to agree with Rav Rakeffet of Yerushalayim: “someone who thinks that he will not be a Gaon if he serves for a short time in the military will not be a Gaon in any event.” But it is unconscionable to expect the rest of society to support a lifestyle that is alien to them, and frankly, alien to Torah. Why would a “secular” Jew be attracted to a “Torah” lifestyle that purports to demand estrangement from the general society, a cloistered abode, a rejection of general knowledge, an inability to function in the presence of women, a disdain for gainful employment and self-support, etc.? It doesn’t seem very attractive, except for one who wants to escape from the world.

I don’t believe that Chareidim should be imprisoned for refusal to serve, nor that it will ever happen.  But, I note half in jest, what if it did? One can learn Torah full-time anywhere, even in prison. In fact, prison is ideal. Rav Meir Kahane hy”d wrote a 500-page sefer while he was in prison.  Every Israeli prison has a fully-stocked Bet Midrash, there are regular minyanim, Magidei Shiurim come every day, the food is mehadrin, there are no women present, no distractions at all. There are regular furloughs for Yamim Tovim. The government can support them anywhere. It’s just a change in venue. I don’t underestimate the hardships of prison life, but the Israeli jail is not the Gulag to which Jews were sent for learning Torah.

That they don’t proudly embrace the consequences of defiance means there is another factor at work: as you write, there are people who perceive the actions of the government as “social engineering” designed to “prevent Chareidim from living Torah-true lives.” I don’t believe that, and the extent to which the Charedi world has alienated natural supporters and lovers of Torah should be worrisome to them. But anyone who does believe that should not insist that the government subsidize that lifestyle. I personally oppose incarceration or criminal penalties, but I also would grant no government benefits at all to people who refuse to perform any type of national service. The Chareidi educational system is also in disarray; I do not see why the government should support any school system that does not educate its students in a way that will enable them to function in society. Is that really a “Torah-true” life? I think not.

One last point, which goes to the heart of this: I have never heard of a Chareidi shul where the tefila for Tzahal is recited. Forget the tefila for the medina – but why wouldn’t they say the tefila for Tzahal? I have asked this question many times to Chareidi acquaintances, and mostly been met with stunned silence and occasionally with a muffled “the Rebbe…the Rosh Yeshiva… has never told us to say it.” It is simply inexplicable, a lack of derech eretzhakarat hatov, and common sense.

What a Kiddush Hashem it would be if the Charedi leadership announced today that, it still rejects conscription, but henceforth it will daven for Tzahal every week! That would go a long way to easing tensions, perhaps not with Yair Lapid and his cohorts but with the Dati-Leumi Torah community that you are rapidly losing.

I love all Torah Jews and I hate all distortions of Torah. The Chareidi Torah world has so much to offer, and I refuse to accept this prevailing notion that they need to treated like handicapped children with special needs, that they are unable to live and interact with normal people. I reject that. I will treat them like precious Jews but like adults: those who are poreish min hatzibur should not be shocked or disheartened when the tzibur is in turn poreish from them.  The Chareidi world, on some level, perceives itself as a self-contained community that can insulate itself from the greater society which it holds (at least in some aspects, understandably) in contempt. But then don’t be surprised when that same society – which feels the contempt – then decides it no longer wishes to subsidize or indulge that community.

With friendship, all blessings and wishes for nachat v’chul tuv,

Steven Pruzansky

Your Brother in America

—————————————————————————————————-Those who wish to hear a powerful, passionate, and heartfelt sicha on this matter, please listen to Rav David Milston, RoshYeshiva of Midreshet Harova in the Old City, and his reaction to the rally in Israel.  Listen at: