The Holocaust: The Darkness and the Light

Here is a video of a speech I delivered for Yom Hashoah at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, NY, on May 1, 2019.

Advertisements

Dayenu

This is the Dayenu for President Trump, based on the simple realization that there has never been a president as pro-Israel as Trump, and it is almost unthinkable that there will ever be another. Let us count the ways, individual acts for which alone we would sing Dayenu, “it would have been enough:”

  • If Trump had only ceased calling the Palestinians “refugees,” it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only rejected the notion that the fate of the Palestinians is the crux of every conflict in the Middle East, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only halted financial aid to the Palestinian Authority to protest their diabolical “pay to slay” program, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only questioned the wisdom and viability of the two-state illusion, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only devastated ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only canceled the Iran nuclear deal and committed to thwarting an Iranian nuclear bomb, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only acknowledged Israel’s right to settle throughout its ancestral homeland, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only vetoed every anti-Israel resolution tabled at the United Nations, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only withdrawn the United States from the UN Human Rights Commission and from UNESCO for their vicious anti-Israel bias, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only unequivocally supported Israel’s right of self-defense, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only moved the American embassy to Yerushalayim, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s eternal and undivided capital, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only formally recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only routinely denounced the scourge of Jew hatred, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only said – as he did after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre – that “those who are trying to destroy the Jewish people, we will destroy them,” it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only ostracized anti-Israel voices in America, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only warmly befriended Israel’s Prime Minister and its people, it would have been enough.

That is some list, even without reciting the al achat kama v’chama that would marvel at the achievement of each of the above. It is unprecedented in the history of the relationship of the United States and Israel and the president is only two years into his administration. Of course, there have been other presidents who were “pro-Israel,” and others who were less than friendly – but there has never been a President whose support was unambiguous and influenced so many other nations around the world as this President. We should be thankful, and express our gratitude without hesitation.

Gratitude is an especially cherished virtue among Jews and particularly on Pesach when we celebrate our nation’s founding. And even if we limit the real Dayenu to the King of Kings, we do acknowledge that, as King Shlomo put it, “Like streams of water the heart of a king is in G-d’s hands…” (Mishlei 21:1).

Sure, he may tweet a bit too much and much too vividly at times, and one can quibble with a questionable policy here and there, and others can criticize a character weakness or two, but we betray ourselves and our deepest values if we do not express gratitude. Only a Trump, not beholden to the tired thinking of all the old Middle East experts and their evenhandedness, their failures, and their anti-Israel animus scarcely concealed, could have pulled this off –a re-alignment of American foreign policy.

And even if Jews are not one-issue voters, it behooves us to at least acknowledge the contrast with prior presidents – some of whom made promises they did not keep, berated Israel and Jews when new rooms were added on to apartments in Ofra and Kiryat Arba, never acknowledged (or acknowledged grudgingly) Israel’s natural, historic, religious and moral right to its homeland, embraced wholeheartedly the chimeras of “land for peace” and the “two state illusion,” urged restraint and proportionality whenever Jews were attacked and wished to retaliate and pre-empt future attacks, and were obsessed with again partitioning the land of Israel and excising its heartland from Jewish sovereignty.

Whether President Trump is guilty of the crime of obstruction of justice or the virtue and natural right of obstruction of injustice (it seems more like the latter) will be settled according to the new American custom: by the media. As for us, even Jewish Democrats should at least acknowledge these blessings and how the current administration has strengthened Israel – and regardless of the fanciful “deal of the century” coming down the road. We should not only see maror but open our eyes to the wonders of a friendship and alliance that has achieved heretofore unimaginable heights.

Sometimes we are tested with an abundance of good and not the incidence of evil. That too is a gift of Providence for which we should be ever grateful.

 

The Rishon Who Thwarted Arab Terror

      We can start with two trivia questions – trivia, but not trivial. What three word phrase in the hagada is the most frequently recited? That’s the relatively easy question. The more difficult one is this: what paragraph did Rav Soloveitchik say is the most important in the hagada? If you know the first, the second should come naturally. And it all goes to prove this amazing story, a true story entitled “how the responsum the Rashba (Rav Shlomo ibn Aderet, 1235-1310) of the eliminated the terrorists.”

     The Gemara (Pesachim 33a) states that one can only give terumah to a kohen if he is able to consume it immediately but not if it is something that he would have to burn. For example, “wheat that became chametz while it was still attached to the ground.” That means that if wheat is rained upon, the wheat becomes chamtetz even before it was harvested. But how can that be? All wheat receives rain; if not it does not grow!

     R. Shlomo ibn Aderet, native of Barcelona, asked this question (Rashba, Volume 7, Chapter 20) and he answered that this is only true if the wheat is fully ripened and doesn’t require any more nourishment. In that situation, it is as if it is already in a jug and will become chametz if rain falls on it. Indeed, this is the halacha, as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 467:5) and the Mishna Berura (467:17) adds that “for this reason, the pious ensure that their matzot come from wheat that has been watched from the time of the harvest and that they are still a little moist,” just as the Rashba required.

     Practically, this rarely presents a problem because in Israel the rainy season ends long before the time for harvest. But in 2014, there were sudden and unexpected thunderstorms across the south of Israel right before Shavuot, and that endangered the whole crop. The Badatz had to invalidate most of the wheat fields because the rain had fallen on ripe wheat. They searched and researched, and the rabbinical court in Bnei Brak found that there had been no rain in Kibbutz Sufa, adjacent to the Gaza border, quickly negotiated with them, and harvested their entire wheat field in June 2014.

    Unbeknownst to anyone, Hamas terrorists had for the previous six months dug a tunnel from Gaza under the wheat field into Kibbutz Sufa. Their reconnaissance had revealed that it was perfect cover – a large field covered by high stalks of wheat. They planned a terrorist attack on Sufa for the end of June, 2014.

    I have seen the video. Almost 15 terrorists emerged from the opening to the tunnel, and scattered in two different directions. You can sense their surprise and confusion – they had anticipated a field that was covered with wheat. Instead, they found a field that was open, flat and exposed. They ran from the opening, and then they aborted the attack, and ran back to the opening, scurrying about frantically. They made it back to the opening and started climbing down – but not before they were greeted by one IDF missile. Six terrorists were killed, seven wounded and captured. The wounded related that they knew the field was not harvested until latesummer and they did not understand why the field was harvested that year in the early summer. It was perfect cover – but they had not planned on the responsum of the Rashba!

     This was not 3000 or 2000 years ago – but five years ago. This is the law of grain that is completely dry and no longer needs nourishment. Look it up – you have to harvest the grainbefore rain falls on it. And so they did, and a great salvation occurred. True story.

     The three word phrase that occurs most in the hagada iski l’olam chasdo, that G-d’s kindness is everlasting. And Rav Soloveitchik wrote that the most important paragraph in the hagada islefichach:” “therefore we are obligated to thank, praise, glorify, extol and exalt He who performed for us and for our forefathers all these miracles.” The whole hagada, the whole seder, and the entire Pesach are designed to bring us to the point that we are imbued with praise of G-d and gratitude for the kindnesses that He has done for us and our forefathers. Everything leads to praise and gratitude – and so it is in our lives as well.

     We don’t only rejoice over the miracles done to our forefathers; if we have eyes and ears, and a mind and a heart, we will see the miracles of today as well that G-d for a nation that is not always aware of it and does not always appreciate it – but should.

   We do – and so we welcome Pesach not only for the mitzvot, the wonderful spirit and the joys of family, but because we can utilize this moment to declare His name and proclaim His deeds to the nations, with the hope and prayer that we will again behold His redemptive hand.

      Chag kasher v’sameach to all!

​​​

 

Takeaways

Who holds an election – and almost nothing changes? Israel. Almost the same configuration of parties that dissolved the last government will form the next one, and hope that this time they can make it work a little longer. It is also extremely rare, to say the least, to have an election in which everyone claims victory when the results are in, but such is the case in Israel. Here are some takeaways from the results, subject to change at any moment.

  • No Netanyahu fatigue:

PM Netanyahu will soon become the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, breaking founder David Ben-Gurion’s record, which, in the tumult of Israeli politics and its mercurial populace, stood like Joe DiMaggio’s 56 consecutive game hitting streak.

How was this accomplished? He is a unique political figure who has learned to follow the consensus and gradually shape it in the direction he wants. He also knows how to manipulate the electorate, in the classic and non-pejorative sense of dangling before moderate voters the dire prospects of an opponent’s victory as well as very subtly offering his more right-wing electorate the possibility of achieving some cherished goals. In the first category was painting the new “Blue and White” Party (a conglomeration of several parties, with a lot of generals at the top) as another leftist party. To the others, he offered – again – the prospect of a tougher hand against Hamas, no Palestinian state and a potential declaration of Israeli sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria.

Of course, when he announced the latter this past weekend, I wondered why he just didn’t declare it then, or the day before, or the month or year before. But that is how politicians operate, and he is a master politician.

Part of his allure to his supporters is that the people who dislike him are overrepresented in the media, which has hated him for over twenty years. The happy faces when the first projections were made that showed a “Blue and White” victory turned sour over the next few hours as the returns came in. The same dynamic occurred when PM Netanyahu first won in 1996 – coming from behind, so to speak, as the returns came in. And for those who remember the long, dark faces in the US media on election night in 2016 – well, it wasn’t that gloomy but it was competitive.

Netanyahu has learned to handle the media well (he ignores hostile outlets for as long as he can) and does interviews very selectively, except during election seasons. He has been remarkably successful on the domestic and international scene. There is no other national leader who is on good terms with both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Talk about collusion! President Trump sees Netanyahu as a kindred spirit, a tough leader, and in his presence, recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights after almost forty years, and to the horror (again) of the American and world foreign policy pointy heads. Putin, whom Netanyahu has visited even more than he has Trump, last week orchestrated the return of the remains of Zachary Baumol Hy”d, killed and missing in action since 1982. It was at some risk to the Russian soldiers currently occupying Syria (whose cruel, lying leaders had denied any knowledge of Baumol’s whereabouts) and tapped into something essential in the Israeli psyche: its concern for every soldier, universally acknowledged even if the execution of that value is often flawed.

Both Trump’s and Putin’s actions were warranted and justifiable in their own right – but to have both come right before the election was…no coincidence. Israelis, used to being international pariahs, reveled in the prestige and concrete achievements that Netanyahu has brought to Israel through his diplomacy and alliances. Rather than grow tired of him, the opposite occurred: the Likud won more seats in this election that in any previous Netanyahu election.

Part of this was a campaign strategy, used to great effect in 2015, that warned right-wing voters that casting ballots for small parties would dilute Netanyahu’s strength and boost the leftist or moderate parties. It worked – to the great detriment of the New Right party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, which has been emasculated.

 

  • Blue and White falls short:

One of enigmas of Israeli politics, fostered by the leftist media, is the fascination with the “new party.” Every election features some “third” party, composed of first-time politicians, who do well, only to fade in subsequent elections. Last time it was Kulanu, the previous time it was Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” (“There is a Future” – an incontrovertible contention) party. It has been a staple of Israeli politics since Yigael Yadin’s Shinui party (“Democratic Movement for Change” party; new politicians always want change, and sometimes even hope) in 1977. Their rise is meteoric, and their fall is equally so.

This year’s version was the Blue and White party, led by three former generals and the aforementioned Lapid, and it did remarkably well for a first-time party.  Several points were indispensable to its success. It was a union of several parties and thus garnered support from many different quarters. The generals, all former chiefs-of-staff, had great name recognition before a public which venerates the military, sometimes to a fault. And the party, because it was an amalgam of different personalities and policies, studiously avoided taking strong or clear positions about anything but their opposition to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s efforts to paint this group as lefties was successful only to the extent that it drove more right-wing and religious voters to him but it failed to convince the bulk of the electorate. Few of the individuals involved presented as hard-core leftists who would surrender land to the Arabs in exchange for smiles and promises. The party leader, Benny Gantz, is not my cup of tea but is impossible to demonize. I spoke to several Israelis who said they would never vote for him but they had served under him in the army, and they termed him an excellent commander.

That being said, it is hard to see what he achieved as Chief of Staff, and his conduct of the Gaza War in 2014 was harshly criticized. Moreover, Israel is enamored with generals but has not fared very well with the three generals who served as prime minister: Yitzchak Rabin orchestrated the catastrophic Oslo process, Ehud Barak pulled the IDF from Lebanon precipitously in 2000 (handing Hezbollah access to Israel’s northern border), and Ariel Sharon fomented the calamitous retreat from Gush Katif in 2005. So much for the wisdom of generals, who failed to learn that military and political/diplomatic strategy are two wholly different games.

If, as expected, Blue and White winds up in opposition, expect its dissolution at a certain point. Generals who are used to giving orders and having them carried out will find life in opposition quite frustrating. But, come next the election, expect another new party on the block, and with some of these same faces.

 

  • The New Right Disappears:

I made only one prediction before the election, and that was that Naftali Bennett would not do as well as he anticipated. It was the gamble that failed spectacularly – suddenly breaking away from the political home that he created , the “Jewish Home” party – in order to establish a party that was nationalistic and mildly religious-Zionist in nature but would appeal to nationalistic secular Israelis as well.

The problem with his theory always was that such a party already exists – and it is called the Likud, which contains on its list a number of prominent religious Zionists. If Bennett’s goal was to establish Likud B, it is quite understandable why, given the choice and the potential consequences, voters flocked to Likud A. Even if the New Right squeaks past the threshold, a more and more unlikely scenario, the party Bennett leads would have shrunk from 13 seats to 8 seats to 4 (or 0) seats. That is not a good trajectory in politics and a timely reminder of the Talmudic dictum “If you grasp a lot, you grasp nothing” (Rosh Hashana 4b).

Worse, the splintering of the right-wing parties into several groups that did not pass the electoral threshold cost the religious-Zionist camp more than 100,000 votes that translates into several more seats in the Knesset. They need to learn a little John Greenleaf Whittier rhyme: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been!” Or even a little Torah, and stop fighting over “Mi Barosh”  (Masechet Sanhedrin 102A). The quixotic Zehut party of Moshe Feiglin especially disappointed, and its advocacy for marijuana legalization most unhelpful; perhaps its proponents were too stoned to realize Tuesday was Election Day – and engendered even more wasted votes.

Bennett and Shaked are very talented individuals who did exceptional work in their respective ministries, and they should take the time to regroup, accept high-profile positions (in diplomacy or organizations), keep serving the public as they have done quite well in their previous ministries, and they will yet return to politics. Remember that the world counted out Binyamin Netanyahu in 1999 after his landslide defeat to Ehud Barak, and he even retired from politics for several years.

I heard he made a comeback.

 

  • The Two State Illusion is Dead

There is one overriding message that emerged from this election: there is no constituency to again partition the land of Israel and create a second Palestinian state (the first being Jordan). Parties who support that position barely eked out a dozen seats in the Knesset.

Leftist American Jews who remain wedded to the idea that the future of mankind depends on the surrender of more land in Israel to a sworn enemy should have a reality check. They are living in the past, man. That ship has sailed, that train has left the station. Stop waiting for it – and especially because it was a disaster in the making anyway.

I sense that Trump’s Deal of the Century was always fluid, never fixed, and should be no cause for alarm for Jews. Whatever final form it takes, it will go nowhere.

It is hard to believe, and a source of great encouragement, that Israel is in such a strong position today – militarily and economically. Certainly anything can change in an instant, and clear and present dangers lurk all around. The Haredi parties slightly increased their mandates, perhaps attributable to their growing population. But religious Jews vote for all sorts of parties and many Haredim and Religious-Zionists vote for Likud as well, itself a warning of the foolishness of diffusing into so many different boutique parties, some that make it into the Knesset and some that don’t.

 

The elections were exciting, and I hope to vote in the next one, which might some sooner than most people would think; the fissures that caused this team to disintegrate season will surely recur this season. But Israel’s notoriously volatile electorate voted – and produced almost the same configuration of parties in the next government as served in the past one.

 

Parents Gone Wild

The prophet Yirmiyahu challenged not only his own generation (and not always successfully) but also continues to challenge ours. He says, in G-d’s name, “just add your burnt-offerings (that are entirely consumed on the altar) to your other offerings” (Yirmiyahu 7:21) that may be eaten by those who bring them, and eat it all. Eat them too, Rashi comments, since G-d says “I won’t accept them anyway, so why should you lose out and let good meat go to waste?”

Why doesn’t G-d accept them? Because they are insincere: “I didn’t speak to your forefathers nor did I command them on the day they left Egypt about offerings. What I did say to them was obey Me, I will be your G-d and you will be My people. You shall follow My path that I will command you, so that it will be good for you” (ibid 7:22-23).

Of course, we might fairly ask, why does G-d reject some offerings? I can hear a modern questioner asking, “well, at least they showed up, at least they came to the Bet Hamikdash and went through the ritual. That should count for something.” And the learned among them would even add “doesn’t the Talmud (Masechet Pesachim 50b) state that “through doing something for ulterior motivations you will come to do it for the right reasons?” Didn’t Woody Allen assert that “showing up is 80% of life”? Apparently, he was wrong about that too. G-d would rather not have us show up than show up for the wrong reasons. Why is that?

The answer is very relevant to us. Motivations matter as much as actions.

I often get the feeling that we are driving our children crazy and not in a good way. Parents tell me how busy they are; they work, and then after school, there is barely time for kids’ homework or dinner, because the children have to be driven to basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer, dance, tutoring, parties, study groups, volunteer work, and who knows what else. And parental pressure on coaches is often intense – to choose the child for this team, and then they badger the coach for playing time, and some will badger the referees at games for bad calls. There is pressure on teachers to ensure that the children all receive good grades and are never disciplined because that might hurt their self-esteem.

There are Jewish schools that shy away from teaching young children about the true events of Purim and even elide the ten plagues G-d inflicted on Egypt before the Exodus, fearing the possible trauma it might bring to young children. Is it that our children are too fragile to handle the truth – or have we made them into fragile creatures?

The recent college admission scandal surprised no one and I am sure it is still going on in some form. Whatever tactic is used – bribes, cheating on tests, and (the worst of all!) faking athletic prowess – is obviously a poor reflection on parents. But why are so many so quick to let the children off the hook. Of course, sometimes they are just pawns, but children certainly know when they do or don’t deserve something, certainly they know whether someone is taking tests for them certainly they know when they are pretending to be top athletes when they struggle to tie their designer sneakers.

For parents it is partly about shielding their children from pain and disappointment but it is mostly about ego, status, bragging rights – and they don’t care whether the accomplishment is real or phony. (Why did it have to be the lawyer who said, “To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about …if she’s caught doing that.” Why couldn’t that have been one of the actresses? Why did it have to be the lawyer?!)It is sometimes hard for parents to let children be children, to let them make mistakes, to let them learn from their mistakes, and even not to let them have something they want but they think they need. It is even difficult for some parents to acknowledge that their children possess any imperfections.

But parents must balance idealism with realism. They must be idealists – seeking the best for their children, maximizing their talents, and exploring all the possibilities that the world has to offer. That idealism, though, must be tempered by realism. Not every painting by a four year old child heralds a future Rembrandt, and not every layup made by a six year old is the second coming of Michael Jordan. There is a bright line that divides between being supportive and encouraging…and being delusional, and parents should situate themselves on the right side of that line.

Parents who are always giving their child a leg up are really tying a ball and chain to their feet. And one sin engenders the next: those who cheat to get into college will have to cheat to stay there, and then cheat to be admitted and remain in graduate school, and the cheat in their profession of choice. And when they are eventually prosecuted for something, they will claim it is their first offense and appeal for leniency, when in reality they or their surrogates have been committing these offenses since they were five years old.

If you never stumble, you will never know how to stand up on your own.

This is a classic case of the Talmudic dictum (Masechet Megila 6b): “if a person says ‘I didn’t exert myself at all but I was successful anyway,’ don’t believe it.” But aren’t there people who coast, and do succeed without real effort? Yes, but R. Chaim Shmulevitz explained “don’t believe it” to mean that we should not believe that such success has any value. We should not believe that the person has really achieved anything meaningful that is earned with an absence of effort. And he added, in a beautiful simile, that self-development, always gradual, is like a field that is strewn with rocks that have to be cleared one by one to make the field productive. “I tried and I succeeded.” But if you just fly over the field or someone carries you over the field, what have you really gained? The field is as unproductive as before.

Yirmiyahu informed us that G-d admonished us to combine our burnt-offering with our other offerings, and eat them all, because the offerings were valueless. When people perceived the institution of korbanot as a shortcut, a ceremony, lacking any substance or sincerity, evincing no genuine change in the person, and certainly no effort in its offering, then what good was it?

Too many parents routinely try to rig the system – doing their children’s homework for them just so the parents can get it over with; falsely claiming their child is learning-disabled so they can have more time for tests; falsely claiming their child has ADHD to get a medical letter so they do not have to wait in line at an amusement park; etc. – and they are doing their children a huge disservice. They are ruining them – perhaps because they themselves were ruined. The accused here are people who have become such great manipulators that it will be shocking if there are any real legal repercussions to this scandal. Why, there is a 40% chance they will plead their way into a fine, probation and some type of community service, because after all, you know, it is their first offense.

A child’s worth, in the real world of the spirit, is determined by his or her goodness, and not by which Ivy League college she attends, how much money will will earn, or how many of their accomplishments feed their parents’ insatiable ego. These days, indeed, one can make a cogent argument that attendance at most of these so-called prestigious, elite colleges impairs one’s pursuit of good character rather than advances it. And the objective of parenting is to maximize a child’s strengths while minimizing and rectifying, but not denying, any flaws. Children are allowed to be imperfect – just like their parents are, and to occasionally fail – just like their parents did.

“The reward is proportionate to the effort” (Masechet Avot 5:23). Shortcuts in life, like in Torah, are usually spiritually destructive. That is not what G-d commanded us or why He liberated us from Egypt to be His people. What He did impart to us was this eternal message (Yirmiyahu 9:22-23): Do not boast about your wisdom, your athleticism, or your wealth – they all mean nothing if misused. If you wish to boast, boast about this – about understanding what

G-d wants from us, to perform acts of kindness, righteousness and justice, for our own benefit and for that of the world, and transmit that ultimate value to our children.

 

In Local News…

(This article appears in condensed form in this week’s Jewish Press.)

It is an overstatement to suggest that the Jewish community in Teaneck is embroiled in controversy, which some media outlets have been trying to promote. It is perhaps inevitable that key elements of the story involving the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County’s new by-law excluding from membership any rabbi who hires a woman in a clergy capacity have been misunderstood, distorted or fabricated. The decision taken was natural, proper, justified, halachic and important, and done in a way that reflected respect, collegiality and sensitivity. It was a decision that affirmed traditional Orthodox practice and the community norms that we wish to propagate and teach.

No one has been expelled from the RCBC nor is anyone being threatened with expulsion. My esteemed colleague from Netivot Shalom whose decision to hire a female clergy-in-training sparked this discussion and clarification, remains a member in good standing of the RCBC. Not only was there a full airing of all views and opinions before a vote was taken, the by-law officially goes into effect this September so as to not prejudice the woman who was retained temporarily in the clergy role. More significantly, to spare him any embarrassment or disrespect, it was agreed that the decision would not be broadcast to the public. Even the media hoopla with which the announcement of the hiring was originally made would not be countered in any public forum, out of professional respect. It is lamentable that this courtesy was not reciprocated and proponents of female clergy ran, as is their wont, to social media in order to protest this obvious articulation of the Mesorah.

No one is being expelled. If my colleague chooses not to comply by September, then he resigns from the RCBC but I sincerely hope we never reach that stage. The RCBC is a professional rabbinic organization that, like any professional organization, sets standards for admission and membership. We have other by-laws. In 2006, we passed by-laws that affirmed that no RCBC rabbi can officiate in a shul without a mechitza or at a funeral without tahara and tachrichin. None were pressing issues at the time or now, but we felt it important to establish this clarity. At the same time, we approved by-laws that required semicha from a recognized Orthodox yeshiva or Orthodox rabbi for membership, and also declared that “no RCBC member synagogue may permit women to receive aliyot to the Torah in any form or in any circumstance, whether as part of the regular davening or not, and no RCBC member Rabbi in good standing may permit such a practice in the synagogue in which he serves.” At the time, nobody even dreamt that we would one day have to spell out the inadmissibility of female clergy in our shuls, so it was not addressed.

The objective of these by-laws adopted in 2006 was “to preserve, promote and foster the cause of traditional Orthodox Judaism in line with the Mesorah of the Jewish people…and to protect the integrity of the RCBC Rabbi and further the interests of Torah Judaism.” The instant decision was taken with the same goals in mind and for the same purpose: the RCBC is obligated to establish its criteria for membership as well as demarcate for the community what is construed as the religious norms that we should and do profess.

Interestingly, I first addressed the issue of female clergy in these pages (“The Incredibly Shrinking Rabbinate, Jewish Press, August 7, 2013). Since that time, the mainstream Orthodox community has coalesced and made its position on this matter crystal clear. The mainstream Rabbinical Council of America pronounced female clergy incompatible with the Mesorah. The mainstream Orthodox Union pronounced female clergy incompatible with the Mesorah. These are the representative institutions of Modern Orthodoxy. The larger Haredi-Yeshivish world deems female clergy so beyond the pale of Orthodoxy that it almost never addresses the issue.

The pursuit of female clergy has been the objective of the Open Orthodox, whom years ago I more properly termed “neo-Conservatives” for their unfortunate attempt to repeat the mistakes of the Conservative Jewish movement of a century ago. It is important for the RCBC to conform to the standards of the mainstream Jewish world with which we identify and to underscore for our community that this is normative Orthodoxy. It is. Female clergy is not a Torah concept, and no amount of lobbying, social media posts and “unlikes” on Facebook will change that. Torah doesn’t work that way.

Certainly, this topic has been exhaustively deliberated. The discussions have been held, the papers have been written, the research is complete, the decisions have been taken, and this issue has been settled. Now the time for choosing has begun – on which side of the Mesorah do you wish to situate yourself? For almost all traditional Jews, the choice is obvious.

The small minority that tragically chooses otherwise are knowingly separating themselves from the Torah world, no different from all the movements in the past that had what they thought were grand ideas to reform, conserve, secularize or modernize Judaism. They are knowingly cutting themselves off from the life force of Torah Judaism, rejecting the almost unanimous views of halachic decisors of today. That is an enormous tragedy, and one that can still be averted. The patron of a restaurant declared treif by a hundred rabbis and kosher by one should be well aware of what he or she is eating.

For sure, this decision does not at all detract from the importance of women’s Torah study or the invaluable contributions women make to Jewish life. May both continue and bring blessing to us all. But it is important to acknowledge that every role or endeavor in Jewish life is subject to the guidelines and parameters of Halacha and Mesorah.

There seems to be an attitude among habitants of the political/religious left, especially some millennials, that if they do not get their way, it means that a full and honest discussion of the matter at hand was not conducted and that “conversations” must continue until everyone else comes around to their viewpoint. That is not only intellectually dishonest, it is actually intellectual bullying, apropos for the social media world but wholly inappropriate for Torah discourse. The redundant articles saying the same thing week after week in the futile hope of mainstreaming the idea of female clergy is a public relations stunt, not a serious argument.

And the younger generation of rabbis must learn that, occasionally, defense of and advocacy for Torah requires forcefulness and decisiveness. No one should seek conflict but nor should rabbis ever viscerally shy away from it because the critics will be loud and frequently abusive; that too is an essential part of leadership, especially when critical matters of the Mesorah are on the agenda. As the Gemara (Ketubot 105b) states, a rabbi who is universally liked by his community, it is not because of his superior qualities but rather because he doesn’t reproach them in spiritual matters. (Of course, a rabbi who is universally disliked has other problems!) Rabbis must stand for something or they will fall for anything and acquiesce to everything. An organization that does not enforce its regulations is really inconsequential, and a kashrut organization that promulgates rules it does not enforce should inspire confidence in no one.

Teaneck is unique among Jewish communities for its homogeneity. Many people are members in several shuls. We are typified by rabbis and laymen who are comfortable in the Western world, have higher education, a strong commitment to Halacha, and are religious Zionists. None of our shuls are outliers, and it stands to reason that almost everyone would be comfortable davening in any shul. The differences in our shuls are subtle, nuanced – not striking or conspicuous.

We don’t want that to change. Many Orthodox Jews would not daven in a shul that has female clergy, just like many rabbis would not want to be part of a rabbinical organization that condoned female clergy. Some voices have suggested that the RCBC decision was an act of disunity at a time when Jews need greater shows of unity. That, too, is a polemical, not a substantive, argument, but nothing could be further from the truth.

We always need unity, even as it has been an unachievable quest since Sinai. But who has acted here in a disuniting and disruptive way? It would the ones who breached the consensus, not the ones who preserve it; it would be the ones who deviated from the norms, not the ones who uphold them. The responsibility for maintaining unity cuts both ways – but especially obliges those who carve out their own path and stray from the road on which we all travel.  In a world in which the Mesorah is under attack, and Torah values are, as always, challenged by the zeitgeist, those who hold firm and clarify the ideals of the Mesorah should be applauded, not lambasted. Indeed, that has been the reaction of most of our community, strong feelings from a vocal minority aside.

No one wants a resignation of any rabbi from the RCBC and I urge my colleague and his shul to respect the will of the majority, comply with this decision and remain part of our greater community. If a colleague decided, either under pressure from his membership or because he believed in its halachic propriety, to remove the mechitza in his synagogue, few would question the automatic resignation from the RCBC such would entail. Female clergy is the “mechitza” of our generation. Obviously it is the domain of any professional organization to determine its standards for membership, but it is equally critical that we elucidate to our community – again, and in conformity with the decisions of the RCA and OU, not to mention the rest of the Torah world – that lo zu haderech. This is not the proper way. Undermining the Mesorah has never kept Jews in the fold, all good intentions to the contrary notwithstanding. And to “grandfather in” something that is in its infancy is, frankly, bizarre; it is just playing a game that is designed to avoid a serious, mature discussion of the issue, and a lucid, unequivocal resolution as well.

Much has been made of this alleged encroachment on rabbinic autonomy, particularly in a rabbi’s own shul. I certainly subscribe to that, but there are limits to that principle as well. If shuls in one community together ostracized a recalcitrant husband for refusing to give his wife a Get – depriving him of synagogue honors and stripping him of membership – it is unlikely that today’s promoters of “rabbinic autonomy” would salute the rabbi who violates the consensus and grants privileges to that ignoble man, whatever good reasons he can adduce. No one lives on an island, and as the Midrash (Vayikra Raba 4:6) notes, no one can drill a hole under his seat in a boat and claim that only he is affected by it. There is strength in community and this decision aimed to reinforce that ideal. But if the decision is somehow weakened or vitiated, then the Mesorah community will be undermined and respect for rabbis, always a challenge in the Modern Orthodox world, will disappear. And rightly so.

We are a big tent but every tent has flaps and must be secured to the ground so that each gust of wind doesn’t blow it away. That ground is the Mesorah, and fealty towards it helps to produce God-fearing men and women who are the cornerstone of Jewish life and the foundation of the Jewish future. We want all Jews to be in that tent, and together hasten the day when all Jews will see and embrace the beauty of Torah without grievance and are faithful servants to the Divine will.

Election Fever

Here in Israel, election fever has seized the population or at least some small segment of it, with Knesset elections to be held in exactly two months. As always, old faces predominate even, as per custom, palates are salivating at the rise of the next flavor of the month, a taciturn general who can lead the nation to some place it thinks it hasn’t yet been.

The greatest mystery surrounds the fate of PM Netanyahu, who – if he survives – will shortly become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, to the dismay of those diehard Ben-Gurion aficionados who still see him as the prime minister and to the utter horror of long-time Netanyahu haters. Netanyahu’s problems are not with the voters, who would surely elect the Likud again as Israel’s largest party in the Knesset. His main problem is with the Attorney-General, who seems poised to indict him on something, anything. One doesn’t have to be a Netanyahu acolyte to note that none of the accusations are for anything even remotely substantive but the product of relentless investigations that have literally gone on for years in the hopes of pinning something, anything, on him. That should ring a bell for Americans, accustomed by now to the sad reality that you can always get anyone on something, and the clever prosecutor can make the innocuous look sinister, and simple acts of friendship look venal.

Lest one think that voters might get tired of a man who has served almost a decade, Israel’s parliamentary system can enable PM Netanyahu to “win” while receiving the endorsement of barely 25% of the voters, i.e., with 75% of the people voting for some other party. Some win. Some system (!) but at least it allows almost all voices and opinions to have a hearing.

Netanyahu has vowed to run even if indicted while his critics have vowed to end his campaign if he is indicted. The AG Mandelblit may release his findings shortly before the election, an odd practice to be sure. Israel does not use the Grand Jury system for indictments so it is basically one man’s choice. Talk of “one man, one vote.” This one man – Mandelblit – can change the face of Israeli history all by himself; despite Netanyahu’s current protestations, I cannot envision a situation in which even the Likud will allow him to run while under indictment. The pressure of the media (which despise him, for the most part) would be too intense.

The flavor of the month is Benny Gantz and his new Chosen L’Yisrael (Resilient Israel) Party. The name is as awkward in Hebrew as it is in English. Gantz is the latest in a long list of generals to retire from the military, enter politics, sweep to some elective office, and flame out after one or two elections. The names of his predecessors in this pattern might be familiar to some: Yigael Yadin, Yitzchak Mordechai, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Shaul Mofaz, and I’ve forgotten several others. Despite these repeated attempts, the only two generals to actually attain the premiership were Yitzchak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, both of whose tenures were marked by catastrophic surrenders of territory, domestic instability and weakened security. That has not stopped the Israeli public’s enchantment with ex-generals, at least for one election.

Gantz has been a cipher to date. His military career was not especially notable and his public policy statements have tended towards platitudes, clichés, half smiles, winks and good wishes. One problem generals have making the transition to politics (besides the need to get elected) was encapsulated by Harry Truman, who said of his successor, General Dwight Eisenhower: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” The fantasy of the politician-general is that he will know best how to defend the homeland, whereas actually being president or prime minister requires much more than that. The new flavor has always done well, and so Gantz’s party is expected to win double-digit seats. And then he too will decline in the election after this one, to be replaced by another flavor.

By the same token, third parties claiming the center also do well – once – and then recede. Think of Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, both up, and then down, but still around. This year’s incarnation of the Labor Party is nearing defunct status. And the wild card in the Knesset is always the Arab parties, last time the third largest bloc.

The so-called religious parties present an especially intriguing narrative this election season. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked ran away from home, i.e., abandoned the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party that they started to form the Yamin Hachadash (New Yamin, or Right, party). Although their maneuver contained not a little duplicity, it was a smart political move. Bennett has always perceived himself as a potential prime minister but felt hampered by leading a party that was perceived as sectoral even as he tried to broaden it. The widening of the traditional National Religious party apparatus led to certain gains but also muted its response to the issues that naturally affected their constituency including the plight of religious soldiers in the army and the leftist’s concoction of the specter of hadata, religious coercion, which they claim threatens their way of life. More impactful? The left’s hachlana (secular coercion), which in many ways has diminished or diluted Israel’s Jewish character.

The New Yamin is taking a gamble. In essence, Bennett has responded to critics of his Bayit Yehudi leadership who accused him of creating “Likud B” by, in effect, creating “Likud B.” If his gamble succeeds, his party might eventually succeed a post-Netanyahu Likud as Israel’s right-wing party but with a greater respect for Jewish tradition that has been found in the Likud. If it fails, well, the right-wing parties can find themselves with more votes but without power or influence in government. A similar and prior fiasco produced the disastrous Oslo Accords.

The traditional religious parties, right and left, never seem to grow despite obvious gains in their percentage of the population. The Agudah party, under whatever name, never rises beyond the six seats it had in the 1980’s. For sure, many of its voters don’t vote or vote for other parties. And since many of the so-called secular parties – especially Likud – contain many Knesset members who are Torah observant, the narrow parties like the Aguda party, the National Religious party, Shas and its various permutations get stuck at a certain threshold, and then reinforce their narrow agendas by focusing only on their constituencies.

The national religious party apparatus is divided into several small groupings that make meeting the electoral threshold a challenge. But the new leadership of these parties is especially promising. Betzalel Smotrich (new head of the National Union Party) has been an especially effective and diligent legislator and is uncompromising in his support of Torah, Jewish life and the land of Israel. We need such people with backbones and ideas. And Rav Rafi Peretz, the new leader of the old Bayit Yehudi, is not a natural politician – former combat helicopter pilot and Chief Rabbi of the IDF, and long-time Rosh Yeshiva – and perhaps that can be his great strength. His humble demeanor masks a steely will, and his unabashed commitment to Torah, mitzvot, the strengthening of Jewish identity and the holiness and inviolability of the land of Israel should stabilize the Jewish Home, both the party and the country. It would be best if these, and some other smaller right-wing parties, merged and created a larger bloc that could effect a proud national-religious agenda.

Surprises await, as always. What is most impressive is that all these parties are not just vying for the perks of power (hey, that’s life) but present substantially different visions of what a Jewish state is and should be. That is a debate that affects Jewish destiny for all Jews across the world. It is also a good reminder that God runs the world His way – and also that (Masechet Makot 10b) He guides us along the way that we want to walk as well.