The Torah Imperative

On the festival of Shavuot, we saturate ourselves with Torah study, all very worthwhile and understandable. The Torah is “our life and the length of our days” (Devarim  30:20). But how is it our life, and how is “life” different from “length of days”?

We are living in remarkable times, and so we too often take for granted what we have today and what we have accomplished. In many ways, we are dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants, benefiting from the greatness of prior generations.

At the turn of the last century, the situation was dire for Torah Jewry. Upwards of 90% of immigrants to the United States gave up the observance of mitzvot, and of their children an even greater percentage. Shabbat was lost, as people were forced to work on Saturdays. Kashrut was in many places a joke, a scandal and a source of corruption, with many people relying on anything that had Hebrew letters on it, if they cared at all. Jewish education was almost non-existent.

Harry Fischel, one of the great builders of Torah in America, wrote that when he came to America he was told to forget about G-d and religion, and especially about Shabbat and kashrut. “You must work every day including the Sabbath and eat what you can eat, for G-d has been left on the other side of the ocean.” He begged to differ.

So how did we get from that dire situation to today’s world, in which, for all our grievances and all our trepidation about the Jewish future,  we are living in infinitely better circumstances with a flourishing Torah world ? What changed? What always changes Jews: Torah. From Yeshiva Etz Chaim to RIETS to Yeshiva College to Torah Vadaas and Torah U’Mesorah, and then high schools and elementary schools and Batei Midrash, the seeds of Torah were planted. The few Jews to whom it mattered were pioneers and revolutionaries – literally, “it was a tree of life to those who grasped it.” Because of their courage and self-sacrifice, we exist and thrive, overseeing Torah enterprises and enjoying a Torah renaissance that was unimaginable 100 years ago.

We are not accustomed to such self-sacrifice, indeed reluctant to rein in any impulse or desire just because we have accepted the Torah. Note the hoopla over the so-called “kosher switch,” because, you know, it is really too demanding to expect people to keep lights on or set a clock in advance.   Ask people to dress modestly? That, today, is “kill but don’t transgress!” Embrace the traditional morality of the Torah? No, we do not encroach on people’s freedoms, desires and self-expression. That is too big a sacrifice, too much to ask. That is a major weakness of our generation.

But at the heart of any Jewish community, at the foundation of Jewish life generally, is Torah, and especially the study of Torah. It is the secret to our existence and to our survival. And the most evil and heinous of our enemies knew it.

Right after the Holocaust, Rav Yitzchak Herzog was presented by a senior British officer with a most remarkable discovery. The British recovered from Hitler’s bunker two Jewish books and  Rav Herzog received a copy of a Talmudic tractate (Masechet Pesachim) and Chaim Weizmann was given one volume from the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. Two sefarim! Hitler had two Jewish books on the shelf in the library in his bunker, where he killed himself seventy years ago. It is a true story that just sounds fabricated but his grandson (and namesake – Buji Herzog, leader of Israel’s’ Labor Party)  has a picture of his grandfather with that sefer. But why did Hitler retain these two volumes?

Of course no one knows. Perhaps to remind himself every day of his life’s mission – to murder Jews? But then he would have kept sefarim elsewhere also, in his other lairs and retreats and residences. They were only found in the Fuhrerbunker. Perhaps it was something else: Hitler only lived in his bunker during the last three months of the war. Maybe he knew that the Torah was the secret to Jewish survival. Or maybe he saw that the end was near, that the Reich that was suppose to last for 1000 years was collapsing – and he knew he had lost out to the Jews of the Talmud, to those who were faithful to the Rambam – because those Jews are indestructible.

Just as remarkably, barely a block from the site of Hitler’s bunker – now destroyed and remembered only with a sign, a diagram and apartments above it – stands Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, 2711 concrete slabs, looking like tombstones of different sizes, the number, said the artist, chosen at random. What is 2711? The number of pages in the Babylonian Talmud, in the Daf Yomi cycle. It is hard to believe, but it is true. Look it up.

The Torah is our life and the length of our days. It is our lives as individuals, but it is our eternity as a people. For an individual Jew, the study of Torah is the primary vehicle through which we eat the fruits thereof in this world but the principal is still stored for us in the world-to-come.

For the Jewish people as a whole, where there is Torah study, there is life, existence, vitality and vigor. Our enemies know it – but we know it as well. When Shavuot comes, we reinforce to ourselves this basic truth, with love and dedication, with renewed commitment and enthusiasm, not so much to defy our enemies as to reinvigorate ourselves, rejoice with the Giver of the Torah and all who love the Torah, and hasten the era of salvation.

In the Halls of Congress

This year’s NORPAC mission to Washington was the largest ever, numbering some 1500 souls who descended on the nation’s capital to lobby for Israel, and at this stage, for the United States as well. NORPAC is the principal pro-Israel Political Action Committee (as opposed to AIPAC, which is a political affairs committee that does not offer financial support to politicians); NORPAC does, and so congressmen freely open their offices to Jewish visitors from the tri-state area. Well over 90% of Congress were personally visited by members of our group.

Actually, they open their offices to everyone. Capitol Hill teems with visitors, lobbyists, and tour groups with varying needs and young staffers with a desire to make an impact, make a difference, make connections or at least hobnob with the mighty and influential. Certainly, most lobbyists are seeking some pecuniary advantage – a bill that advances their interests, an exemption from some legislation that would hinder their causes or something that benefits them personally. NORPAC is unique in that no participant accrues any personal benefit. It’s all for Israel and to promote the US-Israel relationship, and Congress is overwhelmingly – but not uniformly – receptive.

To be sure, there is tension, even trepidation, on Capitol Hill regarding the negotiations with Iran and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons capability. Few believe that President Obama is capable of effective negotiations, and many believe that he has little interest in preventing an Iranian bomb, as long as it doesn’t happen, as he says, “on my watch.” That is a sorry excuse for statecraft, as the global imperative to stop Iran does not end on January 20, 2017, which, in any event, can’t come soon enough. Republicans demonstrate unconcealed contempt for Obama, but that is largely matched by the Democrats’ ill-disguised contempt. Politicians being politicians, Democrats hitched their wagons to Obama when they thought the going was good, but now see a legacy of devastating electoral defeats, a diminished role for Democrats in Congress, and, not least, a reckless and amateurish foreign policy that endangers Israel, the United States, and other  US allies in the region.

It is not easy being a Democrat in Congress these days. Most want to be on record as both opposing the Iranian bomb and doing everything in Congress’ power to stop it and simultaneously not antagonizing the President. These Democrats are playing hardball. As one Congressman reported, Democrats were threatened by their own caucus that if they didn’t oppose the Pacific trade bill earlier this week, they would be stripped of their committee assignments and none of the proposed legislation would thenceforth be entertained. In other words, defying Nancy Pelosi is an act of political courage and self-immolation, and few politicians have a genuine interest in the latter. The former is generally in short supply.

Parties being parties, this type of pressure always exists on some level but it is usually reserved for major issues – not every single piece of legislation. It is why the votes in Congress are so partisan. The notion of voting one’s conscience on issues has faded. Mr. Smith, call your office. And this reluctance will play a significant role in the deliberations on any Iranian treaty down the road.

It is clear that so much of the negotiations are hype that is attempting to obscure the dissembling and double talk. To date, no one knows what was agreed to in March, as the Obama administration and the Iranians continue to disagree on fundamental issues that were supposed to have been resolved. To wit: will sanctions be lifted immediately (Iran) or over time, based on compliance (US)? Will inspections be open, spontaneous and unfettered (US) or limited, planned, and not at all on military bases (Iran)? Will Iran have to reveal its research and development or not? Will Iran have to close certain facilities or not? Will Iran have to ship its already-enriched uranium to a neutral country or not?

If one wonders what exactly was agreed to with all the hoopla in Lausanne, it is a good question. No one knows for sure. No contract worth the paper it’s written on could possibly contain such fluid, ambiguous and contradictory terms. Some hold that the Iranians are dissembling for domestic reasons (Democrats) and Obama is telling the truth, and others opine that the Iranians are telling the truth and Obama is spinning once again (Republicans). Of course, if everything was worked out – even a framework – there would be no need for advanced negotiations and an agreement with a June deadline. But the fear is – how familiar does this sound? – a treaty will have to be ratified in order to know what’s in it.

Even then, most sane people know that Iran cannot be trusted to adhere to any agreement, and the world’s security is bring entrusted to mad mullahs who easily manipulate an incompetent president, who, for whatever reason, is desperate to have as a legacy an agreement with Iran that allows them a nuclear weapon long after he is gone. In essence, Obama has taken the world from a better place to a bad place, negotiating from a starting point wherein Iran has no bomb and a weak economy suffering from the effects of crippling sanctions to an end point where Iran will have a thriving economy and a nuclear bomb. That is the art of negotiations as taught in the bizarro world. As the US is already providing Iran with billions of dollars in unfrozen assets – in order to “induce” them to negotiate – Iran has already begun subsidizing again the families of suicide bombers and stepping up its support for world terror. One would think that should matter but not to this President.

The good news is that congressmen on both sides of the aisle are skeptical. The bad news is that few see any way around Obama’s end run and the Republicans have little confidence that their Democratic colleagues will have the courage to defy their president. We can hope that Iran is so obstinate that no agreement results, but Obama’s yearning for an agreement is so intense that Obama will likely sign something, anything, and leave the fallout (literally?) to his successors. You can even play that interview now, from 2019. Obama: “When I left office, I had ensured that Iran will not have a bomb. If they have one now, it’s the fault of the current administration. Or George W. Bush.”

Congressman Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) gave us the most time of any Representative. He has his head on straight, has no illusions about Obama, and is worried for the future. He sees a president who just has a different vision for America that almost anyone else in DC, who has no great sympathy for Israel or other American allies and he just hopes that the damage can be minimized. He has the refinement of a true Southerner and the comfortable patriotism of a veteran military man (which, he is, as were his four sons). He was voted the second friendliest congressman, which led me to wonder what he did to lose out to the “friendliest congressman,” in this case Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-Ca). As she is retiring, the title will soon be up for grabs. The competition must be a very subtle affair; you can’t shove your way to the title of friendliest member of Congress.

In truth, it is impossible to visit DC without having more sympathy for the politicians. They work long hours for relatively little pay, they are forced to balance hearings and votes with the avalanche of people who want to meet them, seek out their help or favors, and not to mention the different people who ask for incompatible things. And then at night they have to raise money to finance the permanent campaign to try to thwart those who wish to run against them and find fault with every decision that they make. It is hard to know why someone would want such a job, although I can guess.

In any event, Washington is always an inspiring place to visit, notwithstanding the occasional sordidness of the politics. The gleaming white marble, the impressive government buildings, the Mall and the very layout of the streets reflect power, grace, and the grandeur of a government chosen by free people, still a model for the world. It is still “We the People” who wield the ultimate power, and just showing up and reminding Congress of the importance of the State of Israel to us and to most Americans makes an immeasurable difference. It also safeguards the US-Israel relationship as it navigates the treacherous road past this administration into an uncertain future.

Down to the Wire

Here in Israel, the formation of the government has literally come down to the wire with no clear path in sight. The assumption is that PM Netanyahu will be able to accommodate the “Jewish Home,” his erstwhile “natural” partner. But as noted here right after the election, Netanyahu has often backtracked on pre-election promises, turned to parties with whom he shares no real symmetry of views, and spurned his natural allies. There are so many competing interests and personalities the process is soap-operatic.

Israeli society is split, not evenly down the middle, but with a leftist minority that is substantial enough that the right wing can never win an outright majority, even given its multiple parties. Once again, the mandates were distributed in such a way that the small parties were given disproportionate control over the formation of the government, and each is squeezing the largest party – Likud – for as much as it can get.

The surprise of the week was the resignation of FM Avigdor Lieberman, who took his shrunken party (down to six seats) into opposition. He was an unusual Foreign Minister, to say the least: not really fluent in English, not engaged in the “peace process” negotiations – what one might think is the natural domain of a foreign minister – and subjected to recurrent investigations for alleged misdeeds, most of which amount to nothing. His muted status enabled Netanyahu to serve as his own foreign minister. But Lieberman’s six seats are not indispensable to the formation of the government, his role would not have changed much, and he craves another opportunity: to present himself as the right-wing alternative to Likud. That, too, is odd given some of his past positions in the real world (population and territorial exchanges), but then politics is odd. So why participate in a nominally right-wing government from a weak position when you can carp from the outside that the government is not strong, forceful or right-wing enough? That lays the groundwork for the next campaign, which looks like it will come within a year or two anyway.

The real drama is over the inclusion of the Jewish Home, and here the situation is much murkier. The Bayit Hayehudi is the successor to the parties of the Religious Zionist movement but rightly aspires to national, rather than sectoral, leadership. But it lost ground in the last election after Netanyahu blatantly appealed for the Jewish Home’s voters, asserting that the Jewish Home will definitely be part of his coalition but that he would have no coalition at all if Likud did not win more seats. This appeal worked, and it is clear that Likud picked up 4-5 seats that would have gone to Naphtali Bennett’s party.

What is equally clear is that, as noted here in March, Netanyahu has been known for playing post-election games, that nothing is guaranteed in politics, and that a weakened Bayit Hayehudi is less attractive to Netanyahu. That is indeed what happened, and despite all of his protestations, Netanyahu offered the Jewish Home the rough equivalent of cabinet scraps, construing it as a minor party. Bennett, who had been promised the Defense Ministry and rejected so far for the Foreign Ministry, was appalled. And rightly so: in urging Israelis to vote for the Bayit Hayehudi, I noted that people should vote their dreams and not their fears, and that the added seats for the Jewish Home would strengthen Likud with whom it could unite right after the election. That did not happen.

Worse, the Shas party was given control over the Religious Affairs ministry and the Rabbinical Courts, which would likely result in restorations of policies and practices that were widely panned by the public, both secular and religious, before they were reversed in the last administration. It is further inexcusable that Shas leader Aryeh Deri, a convicted felon, has been returned to government service after serving substantial prison time for taking bribes, as the sentencing judge noted, “in every government position in which he has served.”

What is even worse than the practical dimensions of the loss of the Religious Affairs ministry are the political dimensions. The Jewish Home is still, at its core, a religious party – the Religious Zionist party. Deprived of the opportunity to make a difference in the spiritual lives of the public, it becomes a shell without a core. That is one reason for the Bennett discontent and his persistent threats to go into opposition even if that results in a national unity government or new elections (both of which are likely to occur anyway in due course).

The better reason is that the Jewish Home has suffered in recent years because of the accusation that it is nothing but “Likud B.” In truth, both Likud and Bayut Hayehudi are parallel parties but they are not identical. Likud is a secular party, notwithstanding the presence in its ranks of some religious Zionists. It is a secular party and toes a secular, though traditional-leaning, line. The Jewish Home is a religious party, presumably capable of infusing the public debate with the wisdom of Torah. It would not be the worst thing to have some daylight between the Likud and the Jewish Home so the differences between them are underscored, something which would induce the latter’s voters to stay “Home” come the next election.

If Bennett is offered substantial ministries – Foreign, Education, Justice, for example, in which his party can shape Israeli society, then it is worthwhile to be part of the government. If not, not. What happens if the Jewish Home does not join the government? That is impossible to predict. The Labor party would not remain intact if it joined a national unity government, nor would Likud remain intact. As high-sounding as is the concept of “national unity,” little good comes from it, and governments that have enjoyed great legislative majorities in Israel in the last two decades have made disastrous mistakes. The configurations of parties and personalities are too abstruse to calculate. But to form a new government by bringing in current opposition figures who served in the last government and were fired, precipitating these elections, does not seem to be a very logical approach.

Of course, Bennett will be blamed for entering the government in some reduced capacity, and blamed for not entering the government and engendering either new elections or a center-left government. It seems to me that his best move is either being in opposition if he is offered little or being in the coalition if he is offered something substantial. Either way, he will be able to present his party as a credible alternative to leadership looking forward.

The other interesting phenomenon is the antipathy towards the Charedi party, Yahadut Hatorah. They make few demands, and most of their demands can be met by something the leading party can always trade: money from the public treasury. They unabashedly believe in the welfare state, income redistribution and the rest, and would feel much at home in today’s Democratic Party. Politics does make some strange bedfellows.

They may not be my cup of tea but Netanyahu is being widely lambasted for “caving in to the Charedim” and the Charedim for “blackmailing” the leading party. Which begs the question: why is it that when Netanyahu reaches an agreement with, say, Moshe Kachlon’s Kulanu party, that is perceived as fair negotiations and reasonable compromises but when he reaches an agreement with Yahadut Hatorah that outcome must be attributed to blackmail, pandering and bad faith? The only logical answer is anti-Charedi bias, which is outrageous. They have their voters and their right to be represented. And give them credit – they know how to negotiate and they know how to keep their agreements.

As this is disseminated, the Jewish Home is very close to entering the government with control of the Education, Justice and Agriculture ministries. All three promote basic interests of the party: the spread of Torah education, the reform of the leftist legal system to include more right-leaning, Torah-educated justices (as well having the values of Torah play a more explicit role in Israeli jurisprudence; the left will scream themselves hoarse) and support for the right of Jewish settlement.

That sounds like good negotiations and a good outcome. Assuming, though, that a 61-seat bare majority government is not long for this world, the Jewish Home is well-positioned to make a positive difference in Israeli life and lay the groundwork for the next stage of leadership.

And the merry-go-round continues…

The Moral Deficit

The Mayor of Baltimore, who graciously “gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well,” was heeding Talmudic advice in giving the green light to her citizen-rioters to loot, burn, terrorize and perform other acts of violence. The Talmud (Yoma 78b) suggests that an older child should be given “clay vessels” to break, so as to have an outlet for his aggressions or anger. Rabba even bought damaged clay vessels and provided them to his children to break when they felt like it. (Of course, Rabba gave them his own vessels; he didn’t tell his offspring to go break someone else’s vessels or burn down someone else’s store…)

One would assume the Mayor misspoke and meant to say “protest,” not “destroy,” but some mistakes are so unfortunate that they are irreparable. That is not to say she will take responsibility and resign – that is not the ethos of modern America – but her words were, unintentionally or not, grounds for the mayhem that ensued, abetted by the passive response of the police obviously under orders to let the “protesters” vent. The President, whom we have been told repeatedly is a “role model” for young black men, waited a day to casually condemn the violence. It was a desultory commentary; Obama summons more passion in condemning Israelis for adding rooms to their homes in Ofra or Efrat that he did in criticizing young blacks for burning down their own neighborhoods.

Needless to say (actually, quite needful to say), the frustration of many blacks is real, and not necessarily the frustration over the police actions herein. The death of Freddy Grey remains a mystery, and even presuming his innocence, bad things do generally happen even to the innocent when one runs from the police, assaults a police officer, is arrested by the police or finds oneself in police custody. It is best not to get arrested, and even better not to commit crimes (or be in arrears on child support) or do anything that might result in an arrest. There are several recent cases – this is just the latest – in which it does not seem that anyone should have died at all, and those responsible should be brought to account. Of course, non-blacks have also died in confrontations with the police when the police tactics might have been overly aggressive. Rarely, though, have the aggrieved taken to the streets and burned down homes and businesses.

The real frustration of the black community should be over the persistent lawlessness, endemic poverty and social dysfunction that, for some reason, cannot be overcome. The narrative that there is open season on blacks by police officers across the country is patently false, and the statistics bear this out so blatantly that it needs no real analysis. The WSJ reported that twice as many blacks were killed in Chicago alone in one recent year as were killed by the authorities in the rest of the entire country – and 90% of blacks are killed by other blacks. That is the real scandal and the real cause of outrage, or should be. Good black parents – and the lingering tragedy is that most black children are raised by single mothers because of the disappearance of their fathers – must be petrified of sending their children to schools, friends, and even to play ball in the street because gang violence is common, illegal guns rampant and premature death a sad fact of life. The reality is that the young black has more to fear from other young blacks than from any white police officer, but no one seems to internalize that fact.

This is not a “white” police problem, although – without rationalizing any of the recent incidents of death in police custody – it is understandable why the police would be a little edgier in high crime environments than they would be when patrolling in tonier neighborhoods. The police also have families and children, and also want to get through the day alive and in one piece. Some have suggested that the police should just look away and stop ticketing for quality-of-life crimes, stop arresting for outstanding warrants on “minor” matters like failure to pay child support or driving without insurance or a valid license – in other words, look away in order to calm tensions.

The image of Baltimore in flames is exactly what happens when the police look away and decide not to enforce the law. Our Sages (Avot 3:2) taught that we should always “pray for the welfare of the government; but for fear [of government], a person would swallow his friend alive.” Alive! It is what enables people to break into a business and loot the assets, whether liquor, sneakers or bars of soap.

And that, for me, is the heart of the problem. It’s not “racism,” a tedious contention especially given that Baltimore (like many other big cities) has been governed by blacks for years. It has a black mayor, black police commissioner, large black population, and a police force with black representation that is proportionate to the population. That allegation is so clichéd that it is an attempt – usually successful – to avoid dealing with the major problem. And the problem is not education, jobs, police, income inequality, etc.

The problem is a moral deficit that cannot seem to be surmounted and is getting worse as time goes on. The Baltimore riots were typified by one particular act of anarchy: someone broke into stranger’s car, apparently hotwired it, and drove it right into a fire. He then emerged with hands raised in exultation (Touchdown!!) as the car caught flames because he had now succeeded… in what exactly? Stealing a neighbor’s car and destroying it, thereby inconveniencing him, perhaps depriving him of his means of getting to work in the morning? One who can do that and be proud of himself suffers from a deficit of morality that is not easily reversed. It is worse than lawlessness; it is moral emptiness, an obtuse ignorance and blithe rejection of the fundamental rights of another human being.

That moral deficit is manifested in the welfare culture that has created multi-generational families of dependence on others; in black men who routinely procreate and then evaporate, leaving their progeny fatherless; in disparaging the importance of education; in nurturing feelings of entitlement and fostering an industry of grievance; and in cultivating an environment in which crime and immorality are justified or excusable because of past wrongs done to blacks.

Obviously, all blacks are not subject to these harmful forces and probably not even most blacks. Many have rightly lauded the black mother who smacked her teenage son’s face and ordered him off the streets. Good for her! May there be many more like her. But there is another factor that underscores the dysfunction in the black community and the difficulty is shifting gears: the clergy.

Many black clergymen – think the Sharpton’s, the Jackson’s, the Wright’s, et al – stoke the flames (sometimes literally) of violence, grievance and anger at others. Blaming others, especially white people generally and sometimes Jews specifically, is a traditional sermon topic. They never call for introspection, for owning up to their mistakes, for taking responsibility for their own lives; it’s always someone else’s fault. And they disproportionately receive media attention and even White House accolades.

Jews – and their clergy – are the exact opposite. Whenever any Jew stumbles –and we have our own share of miscreants – they routinely blame the entire community, lament where we have all gone wrong, demand soul-searching on the part of the innocent and sometimes the victims. We always blame ourselves first, not others; indeed, we usually go overboard in our self-flagellation for Jewish misdeeds are rightly perceived as desecrations of G-d’s name.

For sure, there are black clergy who do the same. They exist throughout the country – some of them are known to me in New Jersey. They want blacks to take responsibility for their lives, they themselves are exemplars of morality and goodness, they realize the problems are internal and not external – and they are largely ignored by the media. And that is a media that still harp on the evils of slavery exactly 150 years after the Civil War ended – in a country in which slavery not only existed but also was the only country on earth in which other white people went to war with hundreds of thousands getting killed in order to bring about the abolition of slavery.

Can these conundrums be resolved? Not easily. The sale of illegal narcotics in the inner city is out of control and ravaging lives, gang violence is pervasive and there are only two ways to stop it. One is to have an increased police presence, but now the community has been primed to see the police as enemies and uniformly hostile. Any arrest of a black – especially one who resists and is subdued – will be met with suspicion and enmity regardless of its justification. It might work but in the short term can only exacerbate tensions.

The other way is from the ground up – to rebuild the black family with mothers and fathers and children, something that was the norm until the 1960’s; to halt the teenage out-of-wedlock births that demeans the young mothers and is occasionally simply a means to receive additional government assistance; for parents to encourage, monitor and promote their children’s education so the resort to gangs, violence and criminality is unnecessary, not to mention immoral and self-defeating; to raise the profile of true black leaders of vision and decency who recognize the dysfunction and yet are often silenced by the shrill voices of others and a media that knows now to inflame; and above all to preach and embody eternal values and objective morality so children are raised with a clear sense of right and wrong and do not look for day jobs in the grievance industry.

The irony is that most blacks already know this and most live it as well. The collapse of the black community in the inner cities after decades of black, liberal rule does not reflect the broader black community. The liberal paternalism that subtly encourages helplessness and “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (in President Bush’s elegant phrase) has devastated black life and needs to be upended; instead, it just goes on and on in a classic money for votes transaction.

But the dangers still abound and need to be checked or “The Burning of Baltimore” will soon be playing at a theater near you.

The “Spirit” of Baseball

Fly over almost any part of America, New Jersey especially, and some of the most ubiquitous man-made landmarks visible from the air are baseball diamonds. Often several side by side, they dot the country and provide a familiar and pleasing landscape. Many will argue the point – because other sports have more viewers – but there is something special about baseball that makes it the national sport.

Are there spiritual dimensions to baseball? Yes, claims John Sexton, long-time president of NYU, professor of comparative religions and author of “Baseball on the Road to God.” Sexton actually teaches a course at NYU on the spirituality of baseball, and his book – despite its somewhat grandiose title – is an elegant, enjoyable read, written with humility and yet packed with insight into the “values” that one can derive from baseball – its sacred spaces and times, its saints and sinners, its miracles (plays or teams), its reverence for the past. There is something about baseball that links generations in ways that other sports do not, with its traditions, continuity and history. Indeed, no sport honors its past heroes with the reverence that baseball does. There is something about baseball that ingrained it in the American psyche, and that in large part is due to the “religious” patterns that one finds in baseball.

Sexton, a practicing Catholic although married to a Jew, is earnest in his efforts to match aspects of baseball to a variety of religions and religious experiences but shortchanges Judaism, and understandably so. He does write eloquently of the famous dilemmas of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax who both eschewed playing on Yom Kippur (although neither went to synagogue, contrary to the rumors believed until today). But the book provoked in me this thought: is there any special Jewish resonance to baseball – any similarities or rhythms that link baseball to Judaism? Yes, several, and they might explain why immigrant Jews were taken with the game, why some prominent Rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva have been big baseball fans (all in the right proportion, of course), and why even today there are more Jews playing professional baseball than playing any other sport.

     The Rhythms of Life. The baseball season very closely parallels the Jewish holiday season. The first holiday of the Jewish year – Pesach – always falls close to Opening Day (one of several baseball “holidays” during the year); this year, Opening Day coincided with Pesach. And the season – both seasons – end around Sukkot, with the World Series indelibly connected for many people to Yom Kippur, and with the lengthening of the baseball season in the last several decades, now coinciding with Sukkot, the holiday described by the Torah as being celebrated “as the year goes out.”

This association transcends mere calendrical coincidence. Pesach, “the festival of spring,” is synonymous with hope, excitement and new beginnings. The connection of spring to redemption could not be clearer: “The buds have appeared on the grounds, the time for song (i.e., the chirping of birds) has come, and the sound of the turtle-dove can be heard in our land” (Shir Hashirim 2:5), all an allegory to the coming redemption. Springtime is the time for redemption – “in Nisan we were redeemed, in Nisan we will be redeemed” (Rosh Hashana 11a).

     L’havdil, but nonetheless, baseball is inherently connected to spring as well. The bitter cold of winter is tempered even knowing that spring training (note the reference to the season; the other major sports do not characterize their practice periods by the season) has started. Sexton quotes the great Rogers Hornsby, he of the highest single season average (.424). Asked how he spends the winter “when there’s no baseball,” Hornsby responded: “I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” That Pesach and baseball are both fixtures of spring is, of course, a coincidence, but in their own ways, evoke similar feelings of anticipation and exhilaration, erasing the gloom of winter, which, for Jews, contains no Biblical festivals at all.

At the other end of the year, the holidays of Tishrei, especially Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, coincide with the end of the baseball season. They (I mean the Jewish High Holidays, not the World Series!) are times for reflection and introspection – necessary for individuals and the world but also for unsuccessful teams – with the days of reckoning, known as the World Series – looming for the successful ones. There is certain wistfulness and tension – even trepidation – that accompany Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as we account for our failures and disappointments, and search for areas that require reflection and improvement. That tension, for sure, is mirrored for the participants in the playoffs and World Series, where one pitch or swing can win eternal fame or infamy for the player. And I know not a few rabbis who refer to their High Holiday sermons as the “World Series,” especially in those communities where even the casual fan (i.e., congregant) attends and is attentive, something that doesn’t always occur the rest of the year.

And with the end of the Series – and Sukkot – there is always a feeling of dejection at the approaching winter. Indeed, the winter sports – two of which, basketball and hockey – now end close to summer (spanning almost three seasons!), in America’s relentless drive to drown its citizens in permanent entertainment and distract them from more worthwhile pursuits (the modern version of Juvenal’s “bread and circuses”). Baseball uncannily parallels the rhythms of the Jewish year. The traditional baseball lament – “Wait till next year” – even finds its counterpart, and coincides, with the wistful yet hope-filled conclusion to Yom Kippur – “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

     Baseball transcends time. Baseball is famous – irritating to some – for being the only major sport that does not have a clock. A baseball game does not end at a specific time; it ends after nine innings if one team has more runs, and indefinitely until one team outscores the other. There are no game clocks that run for 48, 60, or 90 minutes.

Thus, no baseball team can ever run out the clock. Every pitch and every swing – even in a game that is otherwise a hopeless mismatch – counts. A hit is a hit is a hit, and the pitcher cannot hold the ball waiting for time to run out. This was illustrated just a few years ago in the World Series when the Cardinals twice faced elimination in the World Series – they down to their proverbial last strike, and twice (!) – and rallied to win the Series against the Texas Rangers. Life is the same way; every day carries obligations. One cannot simply retire from Torah and abstain from divine service. The obligations are constant and G-d decrees when the “game” ends.

Notice how tefila b’tzibur is analogous to baseball. Prayer is not guided by the clock (although there are certain times when different prayers are mandated – beginning and end times for Kri’at Sh’ma, shacharit, mincha, Maariv, etc.), notwithstanding the many minyanim, especially weekday morning, in which people insist on being finished by a certain time. Tefila, inherently, is the part of the day in which time is irrelevant. We don’t even have a clock in our main Sanctuary (not that that stops people from knowing what time it is); it is just that as the place for prayer is a holy space carved out from a profane world, so too the time for prayer is a holy moment carved out from our mundane day. As we know, there are baseball game played in two hours that are dull, and games that take more than three hours (think some of the Yankee-Red Sox classics of the 2000’s) that are riveting and filled with tension. I would imagine that the same could be true of davening.

Not to force the analogy too much, but one can easily discern the nine inning framework of baseball in the average Shabbat morning service. There are the early innings (Psukei D’Zimra and Shacharit) during which people are finding their way and getting into the service; the middle innings – the weekly Torah reading in which the tone of the service as a formative learning experience is set (isn’t hagbaha the seventh inning stretch? Aren’t gabbaim the coaching staff?); and Musaf, the final tefila, usually reserved for the better baal tefila (the closer?) who is entrusted with presenting the participants with a rousing and inspirational finale. (I haven’t yet figured out how the Rabbi’s sermon fits into this pattern – perhaps the manager’s trips to the mound, sometimes overdone? I assume he has some stirring message to share with his players as the fate of the game is at stake. Maybe not.)

Notice as well that, how, similar to baseball’s efforts to speed up the game (it has gotten much longer in the last two decades, by almost 20-30 minutes, and more than an hour longer than the average game in the 1950’s), there are incessant efforts to speed up the Shabbat service as well, cutting here, pruning there, with some congregations even regulating when different aspects of the service will start according to the ubiquitous and omnipotent clock.

Well, even conceding that good things can also sometimes go on for too long, the over-emphasis on the clock detracts from the tefila – and that’s essentially football or basketball, not baseball. When the congregation tunes out the customary prayers after Musaf, it is essentially running out the clock, and that is most unfortunate. (Better to leave early – a baseball tradition in parts of the country – than to stay and become disruptive!) But there is a pace to davening (and to baseball), one that is not artificially regimented by a clock and that should be maintained. Sometimes the davening can flow smoothly and the service takes two hours or less; other times, there are delays, unforeseen celebrations, additional prayers (construe that as constant pitching changes or runners on base) or a more leisurely tempo that stretches the time to 2.5 hours (hopefully, never longer).

What is most important is that people depart with a sense of satisfaction and contentment, having touched an aspect of existence beyond themselves and come closer to the Source of truth (that’s only tefila, not baseball).

     The contemplated life. Baseball’s pace, unlike the frenzied action in other sports, is geared to enable people to look around, absorb the surroundings, enjoy G-d’s creation of the natural order, talk to other human beings and revel in each interaction. Sometimes our lives move so quickly that we are left gasping to enjoy it. We live in a rush to do whatever and then to do the next thing, and we are scarcely able to derive the full benefit or pleasure from having done even one of them.

There is something about baseball’s pastoral nature that also speaks to the Jewish soul, as opposed to, say, the inherent and brutish violence of football. (George Will once noted that football possesses some of the more execrable aspects of American life – brief spurts of violent interaction, each followed by a committee meeting.) Even the successes in each sport are measured differently: in football one strives to reach the “end zone,” which should be enough to frighten away any sensible person (it has certainty frightened away Jets and Giants for several years now). But in baseball, one who scores comes “home,” to be welcomed by the loving embrace of family and the applause of friends. There is a lyrical quality to the experience. One sets out on a journey, helps others and is reliant on others to help him, and is rewarded by coming home. Rav Soloveitchik envisioned repentance as a similar process – of embarking on an annual journey, being challenged and inspired along the way, and arriving home at year’s end to assess one’s progress.

Certainly one can make too much of this, but Sexton’s book is replete with analyses of human nature and man’s spiritual yearnings that will resonate with the spiritually sensitive, and perhaps even deepen our understanding of faith itself. In his words, “inside the game, the formative material of spirituality can be found .”

And if not, perhaps at least the umpire’s opening shout “play ball” can be replaced by a klop followed by an impassioned “Nu!

Then we would really feel at home.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live and let live.










Pesach and Gratitude

In one of the climactic parts of the hagada, we cite the Mishna ( Pesachim 117B): “Therefore  we are obligated to thank and praise G-d for what He did to our fathers and us” – all the wonders and  miracles  that accompanied the Exodus , and we begin  the recitation of Hallel . But then in the blessing that follows, we reverse the order, thanking G-d  who ” redeemed us and our fathers from Egypt. ” Why the change – first,  “our fathers and us” and then “to us and our fathers.”   Why the change?

There is a beautiful story in  the fascinating   hagada of Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon  about Rav Yona Emanuel, late editor of Hamaayan and long-time teacher of Torah in Israel. At his grandson’s brit milah  in 1985, he related a story that he said he had never told anyone before, not even his wife or children.

Forty years earlier , he said, it was Pesach Eve 1945, and  a young Yona Emanuel was imprisoned  in Bergen-Belsen. He had been forced  for a long period of time  to rise early and spend his day at hard labor. He came back exhausted, just like every day, broken already by two years of maltreatment. He was 19 years old. His father was already dead, his older and younger brothers were dead, and his little sister was dead. His mother was barely clinging to life, lying ill in her barracks. In that time, days before liberation, Jews were dying by the hundreds every day of starvation and disease.

That night – Pesach night – he sat at her bedside and recited the hagada. Of course he had no wine  and  no matzot. All  he and everyone around him had  – in abundance – wa s maror. Life itself was bitter.  He whispered the  hagada  to his mother – he didn’t know whether or not she heard it – until he came to th e blessing cited above.  And he said,  “Who redeemed us and redeemed our fathers,” and when he came to these words, the prayer in the blessing,   “just like He redeemed us and our forefathers from Egypt, so too He will bring us to other holidays and festivals that will come upon us in peace, rejoicing in the rebuilding of Your city and joyous in Your service,” he suddenly stopped.

He could not say the words. For the first time, he didn’t believe what he was saying. And he thought to himself: Will any of us live to see “other holidays and festivals?” Will anyone here see the holy city of Yerushalayim? Can anyone even expect to be happy again? He burst out crying, and stopped saying the hagada. Soon after, his mother died.

But now, forty years later, he continued: that night, if only I could have even imagined that I would live to see the land of Israel, together with one sister and two brothers; if only I could have imagined that I would eventually live in a Jewish state, marry and have my own children; if only I could have imagined that forty years later, I would be the sandak at my grandson’s brit in Yerushalayim; if I could have imagined any of that, I would have been able to finish the hagada that night.

Why in the text do we first say “our fathers and then ourselves”   – and then switch the order in the blessing to “Who redeemed us and our fathers ?” When it comes to offering praise to G-d, everything starts wit h the Exodus from Egypt.  Because our fathers were liberated, so in essence  were we. But when it comes to offering thanks to G-d, that has to come from us first – “Who redeemed us and our fathers . ” In every generation, we have to find the opportunities to thank G-d – for our lives and our families, for our bounty and our freedom, for Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, and  for being given the opportunities to live full, productive, peaceful and prosperous lives.

To all but the most pessimistic and dour, we are living in one of the golden ages of Jewish history. We are not without problems – and the world is becoming increasingly more dangerous –  but our problems pale before our advantages, our gifts and our blessings – from  the ingathering of the exiles occurring before our eyes, to  Jewish statehood , to peace and prosperity almost everywhere in the exile , even considering the recent tribulations .

It is that gratitude that should overwhelm us this Pesach, and fill us with a yearning to better ourselves, to enhance our observance of Mitzvot, our service of G-d, and study of Torah.  It should encourage us to say again and again, with feeling and sincerity,   “therefore we are obligated  to thank and praise G-d for all the miracles down to our ancestors and to us; He who took us from slavery to freedom, from agony to joy, from darkness to a great light.” May  He once again – as He did then – take us from servitude to redemption so we may merit in our day the complete fulfillment of the vision of our prophets, speedily and in our days.

A kosher and happy Pesach to all!