Ask The Rabbi, Part 2

A few months ago, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the second selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

Should a person lend any significance to his dreams?

     Well, none of us are Yaakov Avinu or Yosef Hatzadik whose dreams were prophecies, messages from G-d that guided their (and our) futures. Dreams were the typical means of conveying prophecies for all prophets except for Moshe. But even if dreams are not prophecies, and not all are noteworthy, Chazal recognize with extraordinary prescience the importance of dreams.

The Gemara (Masechet Berachot 55b) states that a person only dreams at night of what he thinks about during the day. That is, dreams are a way of reconciling conflicts in one’s conscious life, or giving unconscious expressions to one’s fears or fantasies, or sometimes dealing with a painful reality in a way that is less provocative or distressing. Certainly, it bears mention that (ibid 54a) just like there is no wheat without chaff, so too there is no dream without some nonsense. The true nature of dreams is masked to make their deeper messages more palatable and most will be unremembered and unremarkable.

Occasionally, dreams will enable us to think more intensely about an issue or problem or person or event that is troubling us, and sometimes troubling us in a way that we refrain from thinking about openly. Certainly, the higher our spiritual level, the more elevated will be the substance of our dreams. But one who goes even seven days without a dream is called “evil,” i.e., unfortunate (ibid 14a). Dreams are divine gifts that clear our minds, ease our hearts and sometimes call attention to potential problems that are resolved without us being fully cognizant of it.

Should a person think highly of himself?

  No. And yes.

This calls to mind the two divergent schools of musar – of Novardok and Slabodka. The former, founded by Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, taught that striving for perfection required the internalization of shiflut ha’adam, the lowliness of man – how man is driven by his desires and fantasies and routinely succumbs to sin. Thus, man can only improve by nullifying the ego, which would be accomplished, in theory, by performing acts of self-abasement. Famously, a student would enter a hardware store and request a dozen eggs; the subsequent mockery and humiliation presumably did wonders to rein in the pleasures of the ego.

The Alter of Slabodka disagreed sharply and focused his musar on the recognition of gadlut ha’adam, the inherent greatness of man, created in G-d’s image and with a soul that could apprehend G-d’s wisdom and morality. The descendants of the Avot and the heirs to the illustrious traditions of Israel must have a healthy self-worth. The people that stood at Sinai and received G-d’s Torah must always act in a dignified and refined way befitting their royal status.

In a sense, these are but reverberations of the aphorism of Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Pshischa: “a person should always carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. On one is written ‘the world was created for me’ (Sanhedrin 37a) and on the other ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Breisheet 18:27). The test of life is to know when to reach into which pocket.”

The modern self-esteem movement is misguided, to the extent that it cherishes everyone, even those devoid of real accomplishment. Life doesn’t award participation trophies, but as Jews, we must know our place – and adorn that place with spiritual achievements.

 

May one use data derived from unethical research (an extreme example of which would be data from Nazi research that used human test subjects instead of lab rats and caused unimaginable suffering)?

It is tempting to think that use of data from the research of evildoers might serve some productive purpose, notwithstanding they are the fruits of the poisonous tree of diabolical sadists. It purports to make the torture and death of the victims slightly less gruesome and gratuitous and perhaps even adds an element of purpose. We should utterly resist that notion.

Even assuming that the science derived is legitimate and not distorted by the twisted minds that produced it, use of that data is grossly immoral and would tend to legitimize what is perverse and insufferable conduct. If the question is asked this way – Should Dr. Mengele be construed as a genuine scientist and researcher? – the answer becomes much clearer.

Judaism has a concept of an object that is otherwise neutral or indistinguishable from other objects but is nonetheless assur b’hana’ah, proscribed from providing any benefit or pleasure to another. In terms of foodstuffs, the issur hana’ah supplements the prohibition of consumption. It is not just that it cannot be eaten or drunk – yayin nesech, for example – it cannot even be given away to someone as a gift. Any type of benefit is precluded. That is how this data should be treated: total ostracism.

To think otherwise is to sanction the worst atrocities under the guise of serving a greater purpose, which invariably cheapens human life and incentivizes mass murderers. Nazis should not be glorified as scientists nor their dastardly deeds rationalized as even a partial good. That is the only way to perceive evil as evil, identify it and then eradicate it from the face of the earth.

 

 

 

 

A Jewish President

In the year 2000, Senator Joe Lieberman became the first Jew to appear on the national ballot for one of the two top offices in the land. As Al Gore’s nominee for Vice President, many Jews voted for the ticket out of ethnic pride, notwithstanding that most Jews vote for the Democrat in any event. In 2000, four out of every five Jews vote for the Gore-Lieberman slate, among the highest percentages ever recorded. As I recall, there was palpable pride that Lieberman was on the ticket even among Jews who did not vote for him.

Fast forward to 2020. Two Jews – Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg – for the very first time are credible candidates for the Democrat nomination for President, and there seems to be little Jewish pride in the whole enterprise. Few people care about their pedigree, and no one is questioning their loyalty to America (well, at least not because of their Jewishness). Their Jewish heritage seems to be background noise, a part – and not a very important part – of their personal histories and completely irrelevant to the task at hand. If either man is the nominee, a majority of Jews will vote for him, mostly unthinkingly, because he is a Democrat and not because he is a Jew. The pride in Joe Lieberman is dissipated.

What has changed? Is it because Jews have made it in America and so prominent Jews are no longer a novelty? Or is it because Jews have lost it? I sense the latter.

Consider the obvious: the involvement of each man in Jewish communal life. Sanders is a renegade Jew, whose brief stint on a kibbutz more than a half century ago qualifies as his deepest connection to the Jewish people. Bloomberg has been more involved in Jewish life through his philanthropy – he has supported Jewish charities – and because he has lived in New York City for so many decades. Neither man identifies in the least with the biblical vision of the Jewish people as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a people chosen by G-d to bear His name, observe His law, and bring His morality to the rest of mankind. Neither man evinces the slightest interest in, or observance of, the 613 commandments that define the life of the Torah Jew.

Thus, it is unfortunate but typical of American Jewry during this era, that Sanders has been intermarried for more than 30 years and has no Jewish children. Bloomberg is divorced from a Jewish woman (her father was a non-Jew) but his paramour since 2000 is also non-Jewish.  With intermarriage devastating American Jewish life to the extent that accommodation with it is making inroads even in the Orthodox world, it is hard to imagine the consequences to American Jewry if intermarriage (or inter-religious relationships) finds its way into the White House, with all the attention that is naturally focused on the First Family. Intermarriage will be so normalized, even celebrated, that the fragmentation and disintegration of American Jewry will be hastened.

One positive byproduct of the Trump administration has been the prominence of religious Jews – in the President’s family, of course, but even among his staff, advisors and appointees. (I hope they somehow compensate for the plethora of Jewish Democrats who have relentlessly waged war against President Trump since before he took office.) But the visibility of a yarmulka and mezuzot in the White House, the respect for Shabbat and the appreciation for the rhythms of traditional Jewish life have been rewarding, and, one can pray, even inspirational to Jews whose faith and commitment can only be strengthened by the presence of faithful and committed Jews in positions of distinction.

It is a sign of how accepted Jews have become in American civic life that the President demonstrates such a comfort level with religious Jews. But that display of Jewish pride would be dramatically reversed in a Sanders or Bloomberg administration, whose connection to Jewish life is, respectively, non-existent and tenuous. How is that connection defined?

Recall as well that Joe Lieberman was an observant Jew, who wore his Jewishness on his sleeve. For sure, his political views were not all Torah based and very much in the mainstream of his party. But he was known in America, and perhaps even most appreciated by Jews, for his forthright and persistent advocacy of the moral notions that are reflective of the biblical Jewish ethic. And he was never ashamed to declare that his morality stemmed from his religious heritage.

For Sanders and Bloomberg, it is clear that their world views are uninformed by their Jewish backgrounds.  Indeed, like many (if not most) American Jews today, their Jewish ties are strictly ethnic. As President Trump is of German-Scottish heritage, Joe Biden’s is Irish, and Elizabeth Warren’s background is still indeterminate, Sanders and Bloomberg are Jews by blood but not ideology. If Rav Hirsch labeled the people of Israel a “religio-nation,” both a nation and a religion, these two candidates lamely embrace the former but completely eschew the latter. Their Judaism is cultural, and thereby misses the essence of our uniqueness.

No wonder there is little excitement in the Jewish world for these two aspirants, no sense of having one of our “own” make it big. Far from embracing their rich and eternal heritage, they perceive it as an accident of birth. While they are wholly different in temperament, policies and even acceptability as presidents, they share in common this constricted approach to Judaism. Judaism as a religion and a national identity are the two legs on which we stand. Remove one, and our distinctiveness withers and disappears and, these days, fairly quickly.

It bears mention that the two do not share the same views on Israel (or on the United States, for that matter). Sanders is overtly hostile and his self-definition as  “pro-Israel” is reasonable only if you characterize as pro-Israel a desire to see Israel divided, weakened and stripped of its Jewish identity. Bloomberg is certainly not hostile; he fits comfortably into the modern Democrat party’s support for an Israel that no longer exists, and for good reason. He opposes settling the heart of the land of Israel and remains wedded to the “two-state delusion.” But that is where the Democrat party is. Sanders’ Israel has the right of self-defense in theory but never in actuality. Bloomberg is more practical on that score, but again, his policies are unrelated to his Jewishness.

Have Jews so made it in America that the prospect of a Jewish president has left people blasé? Or does this feeling emerge because of the nature of these candidates and the realization that, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy, the incumbent’s policies are far superior even for Jews? Or is it because their Jewish identity is so tepid that it is hard to connect with them or summon any pride at all?

In truth, ethnic voting is always a distressing phenomenon. Votes should be based on shared values and objectives – not superficial considerations like blood, race, religion or ethnicity. Undoubtedly, if a faithful Jew ever runs for President – a most unlikely proposition – the reaction of Jews will be far different. It is entirely plausible, even probable, that a non-Jewish President can represent the true interests of the Jewish people, and even extend unflinching support to the State of Israel, far better than can any Jewish candidate. The two Jews currently in the running remind us not of the success of the American Jewish community but rather of its decline. That neither will be elected President should come as a relief for multiple reasons.

Inversion Therapy

The only people happy about the ascent of Bernie Sanders are those conservatives who love Donald Trump and those progressives who hate Donald Trump. The former believe that Sanders is unelectable, thus smoothing the path to a Trump second term. The latter see Sanders as the fulfillment of their deepest yearnings – an anti-American, anti-Israel, capitalism-hating, Communist dictatorship-loving septuagenarian bundle of energy, George McGovern reincarnated (except that McGovern was a decorated World War II hero).

The irony is that the Democrats, attempting to cure what ailed their party in 2016, have inverted their process and duplicated the Republican squabble from that historic year. Numerous candidates representing every conceivable wing and branch of the party vie with each other, and diminish each other sufficiently that the only survivor is the anti-establishment figure with the outsized personality and a core of rabid and disaffected supporters who cobble together narrow victories in state after state.

For the Republicans in 2016, President Trump won most of the early primaries with far less than half the votes, did not even win a majority in any state until April, and ended up with less than 45% of the total vote. Not that it matters – the rules are the rules and you win or lose by those rules. Nevertheless, the plethora of candidates then, and for the Democrats now, mean that the margins of victory are very narrow, the base of support is thin but passionate, and fluke candidates have an increased chance of success.

Add to this the dearth of real voters and the strangest things can happen. In Nevada, a state of more than 3,000,000 people and 611,000 registered Democrats, Sanders received about 35,000 votes in his smashing victory. That is not exactly an overwhelming show of strength, less than 6% of all Democrats.

But a win is a win is a win, and when elections feature so many candidates, the prospects of a fringe and eccentric candidate prevailing are increased. For all of Donald Trump’s uniqueness, he was far more in the mainstream of Republican position than is Bernie Sanders for traditional Democrats (except for trade policy, on which they largely agree). The difference between Trump and his rivals is that – being a non-politician – he has actually made a concerted effort to fulfill his campaign promises and has largely succeeded. He has been a disrupter, to the great chagrin of most politicians and the political and journalistic elitists, and it is most apparent in his policies in Israel and the Middle East (far better than his predecessors) and in North Korea (no worse than his predecessors who repeatedly succumbed to financial blackmail). The Democrat default position always seems to be “we will work with our allies in the region,” a euphemism for “we have no clue and they have no clue, but together we will foster the illusion that we are doing something.” That is political happy talk, not a sensible policy disagreement.

Sanders is far outside the mainstream of Democratic liberalism, and his contempt for capitalism, liberty, and free speech should be worrisome to all, especially Democrats. Of course, some will say, he can’t possibly win but we have heard that before and the American electorate is volatile, and the far left in particular is both masochistic and suicidal. They don’t really care what has never worked and what will never work as long as those on their enemies’ list suffer. On that list are people of faith, prosperous entrepreneurs, and patriotic Americans. That is divisive and dangerous. Class warfare combined with utter disregard for biblical morality is especially lethal. Stalin and Mao murdered tens of millions of people in order to create their socialist paradises, and neither lost any sleep over it; all for the cause.

Those with the greatest affinity for Sanders invariably include the unsuccessful, the slothful, power seekers, haters of Western civilization and the blame-America-first crowd. His brand of socialism is a train wreck ready to happen – something that sounds noble on paper but derails when it hits the tracks. As Justice Benjamin Cardozo said over a century ago about these “unrealistic altruists…advocating an absolute community and equality of wealth,” their policies are “equally impracticable and pernicious.” History, and not even ancient history, has been perfectly clear on that.

Jews, liberal Democrat Jews especially, should be most concerned over the direction of their party and will find themselves in a real pickle should Sanders be the nominee. And if r”l he is elected president, Jews will go immediately from enjoying the best president Israel has ever had to the absolute worst. The tensions that arose during the presidencies of Eisenhower, Carter, and Obama will seem trivial compared to the unrelenting hostility of the first “Jewish” president. The US and Israel for the last several years have a symmetrical view of world events. That will cease on day one of a Sanders administration. At best, Sanders perceives Israel as a racist, colonialist state that embodies values that are anathema to him; at worst, intermarried Jewish renegade that he is, he sees the Jewish national idea as fundamentally illegitimate. That Sanders could label Israel’s prime minister a “racist” (granted, it is his epithet of choice for everyone with whom he disagrees about anything), and not have even one Democratic candidate on the debate stage rebuke him, challenge him or even protest the characterization, is a warning signal for Jews as to how far Israel’s stock has fallen in the Democrat   party.

Imagine for a moment that nominee Sanders chooses as his running mate defeated Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who has already recommended herself for the position and not because she is in the least qualified. Rather, she checks off two indispensable boxes in the diversity scorecard that defines leftist politics in America today, being a black woman. Her utter inexperience in government and contempt for her electorate are further qualifications in the eyes of her radical leftist supporters. What would Jews do? We can assume that both Sanders and whoever his VP nominee is would dutifully parrot enough Israel-friendly bromides to assuage the consciences of Jews who would not vote for a Republican even if it was Abraham Lincoln himself who was the nominee. But even for them, it should be a rude wake up call, and an indication of how their Jewish identity has disintegrated and their Jewish pride plummeted. The only question remaining is why the Jewish cabal that supposedly runs the world would even allow Sanders to compete, much less to win…

It is hard to imagine a Sanders victory, which is why most Republicans are salivating at the chance for Trump to run against him. But even if he loses, Sanders’ unique brand will be stamped on his party for years to come – the Jew who surrounds himself with Jew haters, who disparages success and promotes dependency, and indulges in class warfare as his ticket to electoral success. It is hard to imagine but don’t count him out. Trump’s triumph in 2016 was very narrow. He barely prevailed in the few Midwestern states that put him over the top. And never discount the allure of free stuff that Sanders is promoting – free health care, free housing, free college, free loan forgiveness, free drugs, all paid for through higher taxes on the “wealthy.” Sanders loves everything that is free, except for free markets.

Such a campaign of giveaways worked for Obama, who lacked the rough edges that Sanders possesses and faced weaker Republican opponents. Can it work again?

Sanders should lose – that is how radical he is. But if he wins, Israel will fare much better than will the United States.

Ask the Rabbi, Part I

A few months ago, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my take on some of the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the first selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

 

Is it appropriate for men and women to call each other by their first names at work? 

Rebbi Akiva noted that “levity and light-headedness facilitate immorality” (Avot 3:13), to which Rabbenu Yonah deduced the converse: “seriousness and reverence are barriers to lascivious conduct.” Both premises are true and undeniable, and both are challenged in modern society where informality – including calling strangers, elders and co-workers by their first names – is rampant, being perceived, partly, as a great social equalizer.

But informality also breeds frivolity, and that can lower our guard and even lead to the diminution of our moral aspirations. We have to know ourselves, our temptations and our triggers. We also have to delineate proper boundaries in the workplace to avoid the pitfalls of work relationships that expand into improper realms.

Of course, in a workplace where first names are always used – and no one thinks twice about it – it would appear stilted, pretentious and even pompous to refer to others as Mrs. Jones or Mr. Smith. (Consider also the vast variety of honorifics that people might choose to use that would give offense if they weren’t used; the use of first names protect against falling into that snare.) And illicit relationships abounded in earlier times when people addressed each other quite formally; “there is no absolute guardian against decadence” (Masechet Ketubot 13b).

The ultimate guidance, therefore, is contextual. In workplaces where such informality is part of the culture, it is not necessarily a manifestation of excessive intimacy. Indeed, it would reflect poorly on religious Jews if we appeared aloof and addressed others so formally. But certainly Jews should not be the ones to introduce such informality into the workplace; indeed, all would benefit from keeping professional relationships completely professional.

 

Is the desire to be more machmir than one’s father good, bad, or neutral?

The inclination to embrace Halachic stringencies should not be based on one’s relationship with other people, including one’s father, but rather on our inner commitment to Torah and recognition of our spiritual level. The merit of embracing chumrot is ultimately rooted in motivation and not simply performance. Stringencies are laudable when they reflect an awareness of personal deficiencies that require strengthening or safeguards, as well as the maintenance of a level of religiosity in all spheres that warrants special behavior in just a few.

As a general rule, it is better to be machmir in our interpersonal dealings than in mitzvot between man and G-d. The latter can often be employed to mask utter depravity and thievery in other areas, while the former is a better indicator of one’s true religious life.

Furthermore, chumrot in one area often lead to kulot in others, the simplest example being stringencies in dress or kashrut that nurture arrogance and the pleasures of the ego. That is not a good trade-off as it tends to degrade the life of the soul rather than enrich it.

That being said, our fidelity to the Mesorah generally demands that we adhere to the customs of our ancestors. We don’t create the Jewish world anew simply by being born. Of course, if what some perceive as chumrot are actually the simple halacha that for some reason was disregarded by the parents, then we are permitted to observe the essential halacha. But where halacha is not violated and it is a matter of minhag or hanhaga, then one-upmanship within the family unit is even more unsettling that it is outside the family.

 

Should a person avoid the company of someone who constantly swears but is otherwise a decent fellow?

  Yes.

To constantly use vulgarity but otherwise be a decent person is a contradiction in terms, sort of like shoplifting daily but otherwise being scrupulously honest or eating a cheeseburger every day for lunch but otherwise keeping kosher. No “decent” person can habitually perform acts that are definitively indecent.

Chazal frequently noted the concept of “lashon nekiya,” literally “clean speech” and employed euphemisms when discussing intimate matters, activities or parts of the body. Indeed, Rambam stated (Moreh Nevuchim III:8) that one reason Hebrew is referred to as “the holy tongue” is because it has no original scatological terms. And despite the tawdriness that is drowning modern society – one can hardly walk on the street today without overhearing shameless and voluble profanity, with some words creatively featured in the same sentence as a noun, verb and adjective – Jewish society must be characterized by high standards of personal morality and purity of speech.

Lowly individuals, those who lack self-control in many areas of thought and deed, often cannot help but verbalize their unconscious fixation on lecherous matters by recurrent references to it. But we are adherents to a faith that demands discipline in thought, deed and speech.

The writer Edna Buchanan once said that “friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” Friends should reflect our deepest values and encourage our better natures.  While no one is perfect, and true friends will inform each other of offensive conduct rather than indulge or ignore it, socializing with those whose values are antithetical to ours can only lead to the dilution of our own moral aspirations. If rebuking doesn’t work, then it behooves us to eschew the coarse companion and find another, more exemplary, social outlet.

 

 

Deal of the Century: Cautious Pessimism

The most pro-Israel American president in history just released the most pro-Israel American peace plan in history, and the first that doesn’t call on Israel to make “painful sacrifices” up front or expect Israeli concessions in exchange for empty words, gestures and ceremonies. Do I think it will bring real peace? Certainly not. But it leaves me cautiously pessimistic for the future (optimism in the Middle East is misplaced until the coming of Moshiach).

The negative: recognition of a Palestinian state is a bone in the throat of every Torah Jew (or should be), as is the potential loss of sovereignty over parts of the heartland of the Jewish people that G-d granted us for eternity. As one rabbi once put it, no generation has the right to compromise the boundaries of the land of Israel that were given to us by the Creator and delineated in the Torah. That land is the possession of the Jewish people for all time and no single individual, group or generation has the moral, halachic or legal right to waive that possession. This sentiment was expressed not by a Religious Zionist but in 1937, by the vociferously anti-Zionist Rav Elchanan Wasserman HY”D, in encouraging opposition to the Peel Commission’s partition plan.

The loss of Israeli territory in the Negev is especially gratuitous and irksome, especially considering the years of war and terror and hostility that the Arabs foisted on Israel. A formal place for them in Yerushalayim is similarly agonizing, even it is doesn’t change much the reality on the ground.

Secondly, the negotiations over the agreement almost presuppose a right-wing government in Israel because a left-wing government would use this basic framework – a tacit acceptance by the right-wing of a Palestinian state and the surrender of more territory – and negotiate into weakness, danger, and vulnerability. There should be no confidence that a right-wing government will rule Israel after the next election (or the one that will follow a few months later). With PM Netanyahu’s formal indictment today, just hours before the White House announcement, his prospects for heading the next government have dimmed even more. Hence the hazards ahead, which will be entrusted to less experienced politicians and leaders.

So why then is this plan not an unmitigated disaster, as has been almost every other American or Israeli peace plan going back to the Rogers plan in 1969? It is because it must be measured not against Paradise but against the status quo. The status quo has worked well for Israel in the last decade. Terror exists but has been drastically reduced, the economy is thriving, personal security and well-being have been enhanced, and the situation in the countries surrounding Israel has superseded any internal anxiety. The “Palestinians” have been marginalized by the Arab world, much less by the West. Their bad choices have finally caught up to them. They have no base of support, no passionate advocates anymore beyond the Israeli and the American Jewish left. They are thus reduced to ranting and raving, making wild threats, burning pictures of President Trump, and chanting. Their vehement opposition to this plan is one of its important selling points.

It brings to mind Abba Eban’s famous quip that that “Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” There should be confidence that they will miss this opportunity as well, thus rendering moot Israel’s technical agreement to a Palestinian state and partial renunciation of sovereignty. (Indeed, Israel hasn’t formally accepted those terms; it has simply agreed to use the Trump as the framework for negotiations.) Finally, after many decades, Arab intransigence has cost them. Yes, they should have accepted the original Camp David offer of autonomy in 1978, complied with the Oslo agreement of the 1990’s, embraced the Clinton parameters of the year 2000, the Olmert plan of 2007, etc. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. They didn’t. Their leadership always fails them miserably, if indeed they are truly representative of their people. They have always implemented the game plan of rejecting offers in the hopes of getting a better one at some point, pocketing tangible concessions in exchange for words (the classic has always been “renouncing terror”) and never really conceding anything tangible of their own.

That dynamic has now been reversed, and how that must stick in the craw of the old Oslo, two-state illusion crowd. Now, Israel will within days be able to declare full sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the settlements in Judea and Samaria; a concrete and substantial achievement up front. It is the Palestinian state that has to be created over the course of next four years and only if the Arabs adhere to certain benchmarks that alone would alter the nature of Palestinian society. And if they don’t – and who really thinks they will? – Israel will have pocketed this enormous diplomatic accomplishment at absolutely no cost. That is genius, and credit goes to the diplomatic team that conjured up this strategy. The onus is on the Arabs – to accept the plan as a basis for negotiations even as it makes absolutely no reference to a return of refugees or compensation for loss of homes, and implicitly rejects both. And both of those claims, surely, if raised, would be balanced against similar and more substantive claims by Jews who were forced to flee Arab lands in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

What the Trump Plan has accomplished is force the Palestinians to confront their suicidal ideology and genocidal ambitions head on. That won’t be easy for them, and they will likely be unable to overcome their rabid Jew hatred (although giving their kleptocrats access to $50B might be irresistible enough to compel them to say the right words and open the spigots of money). Tellingly, representatives of three Arab countries were at the White House today, another indication of how the allegiances in the Middle East have shifted in the last several years even as Palestinian diplomacy, if that word can even be  used in their context, has remained stagnant. They are trapped in a time warp, the world has passed them by, and their only hope for their future is to come to terms with the new reality. Their old game plan has left them in last place. Hysteria is a poor substitute for statecraft.

But their fallback position in times of diplomatic opportunity has always been terror, and that too engenders some cautious pessimism. Their leadership has already rejected the plan (MK Ahmed Tibi, somehow still a member of Knesset: “this is a wedding without the bride”). It would be unsurprising if missiles and rockets start to fly or if bombs start exploding in cities, r”l. Israel is naturally on high alert but perfection in these matters is difficult to sustain permanently. We will need divine mercy and the thwarting of the evil plans of our enemies.

It is clear that only Donald Trump could have produced such a plan. The deep state of the State Department must be apoplectic, and the Israel haters in the EU must be beside themselves wondering how this happened. The Arabs must be wondering how this guy ever got elected. (They are not alone!) He ran as a disrupter, and this is a characteristic disruption. After annexation of even parts of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley by Israel, the terrain – literal and diplomatic – will be significantly and perhaps even permanently altered. There is still land in Judea and Samaria (about a third) whose disposition will be frozen for four years and awaits negotiations. Time is on Israel’s side.

And it took this President to do it. Perhaps Jews will notice. Israel wins merely by improving the status quo in its favor and would certainly gain if the other side acquiesced in its existence. But that too is unnecessary in the near term. History is made through such decisions. Even if it is not all to my liking, the deal of the century represents a sea change for the region, dramatic and positive steps for Israel and a day of reckoning for the Palestinians. You can oppose a Palestinian state and a further partition of Israel and still implicitly favor this proposal. What makes it an especially good deal for Israel is that the Arabs will reject it – leaving Israel advantaged for the future in a multitude of ways that should inspire chants of “Make Israel Great Again.” Or something like that.

 

Lumping It

Language always evolves. New words and phrases are coined, enter general usage, and reflect the spirit of the times – for good or less-than-good.

So it is with two phrases that recently infiltrated the culture, one I first heard more than a year ago and one that I encountered just last month.

The first has become a cause célèbre in certain parts, with passionate advocates and detractors: “cancel culture.” Count me among the detractors. “Cancel culture” is the attempt to ruin someone’s career or life because of words they utter or positions they hold that challenge the world view of the aggrieved. The cancellers try, in effect, to “cancel” the person – negate his or her existence, erase them from society, and deny them jobs, audiences, friends, and vehicles through which they disseminate their views.

This first appeared more than forty years ago (although it wasn’t called by this term), and it is still its primary application, in the effort to prevent people with whom the activists disagree on one point or another from speaking – at a college, a private event, or any public forum. It is the antithesis of free speech, which by the explicit admission of the cancellers should not pertain to any speech with which they disagree. I recall when this was the fate of Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick in the early 1980’s for her pronounced foreign policy views against Communism and totalitarianism and for a strong America. (The nerve!) She was banned from some campuses and harassed at others. In the last decade this has become the norm on too many American campuses.  Speakers, almost always conservatives, are either banned or their speeches are disrupted by rude behavior designed to make the event unpleasant enough that listeners leave or the speaker leaves. Several speakers – political scientists and professors, mostly – have been physically assaulted. In sum, freedom of expression has been suppressed, which itself has exacerbated the polarization in society. “Free speech for me and not for thee” is the death knell of American civilization.

This suppression is often accomplished by pressuring the hosts to cancel the event and convincing the proprietors of the venue that violence will likely ensue if the event is not canceled.  Often, threats of violence are made, and the pusillanimous cave in. Or, concerted efforts are made to force employers to fire the speaker or, in the entertainment industry, not to hire the offender to perform. In the latest manifestation of this lunacy, there are states in these United States that boycott other states, outlawing official state delegations from visiting or spending money in states whose policies annoy them. These left-wing states – such as California or New York – have authorized boycott of other states, such as North Carolina and almost ten others. The main irritants are state laws that conform to reality in defining males and females (how outrageous!) and laws that restrict in some form the provision of abortions.

It is important to note “cancel culture” is a one-way street. The cancellers are almost always on the political and cultural far left, and the victims are almost always conservatives with traditional views. There are foreign policy affronts that engender these efforts to “cancel” people – such as support for a strong America or a strong Israel. But usually the offenses are failures to toe the leftist line on social issues, all of which leave one open to the hackneyed accusations of racism/ bigotry/ misogyny/ homophobia/ Islamophobia, etc.  and sometimes all of them together. It is a select list of victims and grievances, and it is not easy to win a nomination to that list. Hence the growing discomfort – on the far left and the far right – with inclusion of Jews on this list, notwithstanding the recent spate of physical and verbal assaults on Jews in America and Europe. Too many writers are still too quick to blame the Jews for provoking attacks on themselves, something to which no other group is subject.

Social media, an altogether unconstructive phenomenon in any event, encourages these purity tests by indulging in the second phrase, one I just heard last month: “hate reading.” No, not “hate speech,” but “hate reading.” That is the process through which one scours the writings or words of a particular individual in order to extract the one word or phrase or idea that defy the conventional norms of these cultural imperialists. In the best circumstances, words are lifted out of context. More generally, words, sentences, expressions, themes and entire essays are just misconstrued. It is not just that the main point is missed but rather that the ideas are outright distorted, positions never articulated or even contemplated are assailed, and the process takes on the appearance of a grotesque farce. Radicals of all sorts, including radical feminists, are skilled in this. It is the snippet that is highlighted and twisted, publicized through (un)social media, and their false narrative takes root in the public domain.

The weak (or perhaps the prudent?) then decide to stop writing or speaking, and the field is abandoned to the passionately misinformed and the enemies of tradition. The latter make absolutely no effort to engage the speaker or writer or refute her ideas. There is no substantive argument. Hate reading and cancel culture only target the individual. It is as if their ideas are beneath contempt. Or perhaps proof enough that they are just beyond refutation.

“Hate reading” is characterized by the utter disregard for what the person has actually said; it is indeed just a search for, and often the fabrication of, the word or phrase that “triggers” (hey, there’s another newfangled concept) the easily offended. Nothing is heard or read with an objective mind but only read in order to get aroused and enraged.

How did American society descend to these depths wherein so many people just hate read, sit in judgment of those with whom they disagree and try to destroy them rather than respect their right to express and disagree? How can it be that so many people go to college and are actually traumatized by hearing views that differ from theirs? And especially in a society that prided itself on free and open debate, on the exchange of views and opinions, and on the right to disagree without being disagreeable? How did disagreement become inherently disagreeable?

The answer is multi-faceted but it occurred to me not long ago that, in the wake of all these new phrases, we lost some oldies but goodies. I recently told some millennials that when I was young, there was a popular expression in the schoolyard:  “if you don’t like it, you can lump it.” They conceded that they had never heard that expression, which, to me, was a crying shame.

That is one way to deal with disagreements, insults, arguments or opinions that diverge from yours: “if you don’t like it, you can lump.” It is of disputable etymology, but it worked! You don’t like it, so you don’t like it. Move on. No two people should ever agree on everything – or one of them is superfluous. So get over it. Let the other person have his views. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person” (Avot 4:1). “Cancel culture” and “hate reading” have reinforced the echo chambers that divide us and cause nothing but grief and agitation.

And one must never succumb to the pressures of the cancellers. There have been two times, I think, when groups attempted to cancel me for some grievance they had. Both failed – essentially because they were told to “lump it,” albeit in other words. You would be surprised at the effectiveness of telling haters to “lump it.” They are nonplussed – and quickly move on to more amenable targets.

Our Sages taught us that “just like no two people look alike, no two people think alike” (Berachot 58a). Just as people’s different faces – even ugly ones – should not bother us, so too even their views (ugly or even just different) should not bother us.

“Lumping it” is a good antidote to both hate reading and cancel culture. When they learn to lump it, or are forced to lump it because they are otherwise ignored, even pitied, we can regain some normalcy in American life and go back to arguing with each other in peace – and with mutual respect.

 

Open Season

The brutal assaults on Jews across America, incessant for more than a year but increasing now in intensity and frequency, are – after taking into account all the facts, circumstances, assortment of perpetrators and potential causes – ultimately inexplicable. There is no rational reason for it. And that should open our eyes to a new reality.

From the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh to the machete attack in the shtiebel in Monsey, and including the almost daily assaults and harassment of Jews across the metropolitan area and in Teaneck as well, Jews are wondering what the future holds and where is the support from the American political and civilian establishment?

There is some good news emerging from the spate of attacks. In Monsey, Jews resisted, fought back, and after five people were stabbed, the assailant was repulsed, fled and later apprehended. That has not always been the case. Too often, Jews have been docile and passive, punched, knocked down and pushed without any response. Such docility only encourages more attacks, as every bully knows.

It is important to mention that unlike the European persecutions of old, here the government protects us and prosecutes the attackers. That is a major distinction and one that engenders hope and security. What doesn’t is the response of the political establishment that issues florid statements advocating love and tolerance, vitriolic statements denouncing hate and intolerance, and proposes a bevy of new laws that cannot apply to past attacks and will not deter new ones. Hate crime legislation, more gun control laws, or labeling assailants of Jews “domestic terrorists” are all empty gestures; if the clearly delineated prohibitions against homicide and assault are insufficient, then new and more arcane laws will not deter anyone. But laws are the politician’s stock in trade and enable them to proclaim that they are doing “something.”

What metropolitan area politicians will not even entertain is the relaxation of the issuance of gun carry permits that will enable Jews (and others) to defend themselves against an immediate assault. The dastardly attack on the church in Texas was ended within seconds by parishioners who shot and killed the assailant, period. Had the attacker in Monsey carried a gun rather than a knife, the result would have been horrific. When will our liberal politicians wake up, show some courage and actually – strong words ahead – change their minds on something and even exercise some political courage? For all their high-sounding rhetoric and concern for Jews, as long as they continue to pander to the anti-Second Amendment lobby and deprive law-abiding Americans of their right of self-defense, the blood of future victims, G-d forbid, is partly on their hands.

Similarly, the politicians have been too reticent to expose the identity of almost all the recent perpetrators in New York and New Jersey: they have been black Americans. That point is worth noting for several reasons. Had they been white supremacists (as the Pittsburgh murderer was), we would not hear the end of the recriminations against this ugly ideology. Politicians and commentators would be contorting themselves and drawing labyrinthine diagrams trying to connect this dot and that dot until they could pin something on President Trump. The fact that the assailants are mostly black has left them tongue-tied. The ADL is as paralyzed today as it was during its shameful silence through the Crown Heights pogrom in 1991.

As a result, every black assailant is just a lone wolf and they are all mentally unstable. Sure.

It must be mentioned in the current climate that these miscreants do not represent the black community and that blacks, indeed, are not generally anti-Jewish (although their rates of Jew hatred, and even animus towards Israel, do exceed that of the general population). To blame all blacks for the actions of a few would be as foolish as it is false. Only thoughtless promoters of identity politics would, in any event, pin the actions of a handful of people on the rest of that ethnic group, whichever it is. But what is troubling is the lack of response from black leaders, partly because there really is not a black “community” with its own leadership and spokesmen. There are local leaders who try to positively influence small groups of people, and there infamous race hustlers who shake down politicians for money and the media for sympathetic coverage – but no leaders.

So aside from Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President, who forcefully denounced Jew hatred, there hasn’t been a meaningful word spoken by one of the celebrity black personalities (unless I missed something). Where is Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, or Jesse Jackson? Where is Cory Booker? Where is the call for soul-searching in the black community? It is not enough to just perfunctorily denounce Jew hatred; that should be obvious even as it would be welcome. But where is the heartfelt search for the answer to the question why are blacks suddenly attacking Jews in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Jersey City, Teaneck, Monsey and elsewhere? What currents or trends are coursing through the black community that are contributing to this environment? What can be changed in the curriculum offered in the schools, the education offered in churches, or the values being taught in homes? What is motivating these evildoers?

It is disconcerting that there has been such a tepid response from the officialdom of the black community. Contrast that with the outrage heard ‘round the world when the floundering actor Jesse Smollett falsely claimed to have been assaulted by two white, MAGA- hat wearing white supremacists who, allegedly (!) , were foolhardy enough to walk through a black neighborhood in Chicago late at night carrying a noose and kidnapping one of the most well known blacks in the city. Cory Booker, Al Sharpton, Kamala Harris, Jessie Jackson and even Michelle Obama pounced on this hoax and used it as a hammer with which to club white America, and have never retracted or apologized.

Is it too much to ask that they demonstrate some of the same distress for real attacks on real Jews by real blacks? Their silence is as deafening as it is painful to bear. Mayor de Blasio’s platitudes aside, the new bail reform law has already released Jewish attackers back on to the street hours after they arrested, prioritizing the interests of criminals over those of decent citizens. That is truly clueless and a shameful sign of the times.

Indeed, most politicians who denounce the “climate of hate” are often oblivious to the hatred emanating from their side of the aisle and the demonizing of their political opponents. That has always existed notwithstanding the hypocrisy involved. What’s worse today is the nonstop presence of a tendentious media that magnify every event and then distort its lessons through its preferred prism of understanding, and the ubiquitous social media outlets that have unleashed people’s worst instincts with very few real consequences to the offenders. Hatred today has a force multiplier that it has never had before.

What can be done? In the last seventy years, Jews hopefully have learned, from hard experience and the establishment of the State of Israel, that Jewish blood is not cheap. No Jew should stand by idly and passively watch another Jew being beaten or harassed. Of course don’t be foolish, over-aggressive, disproportionate in response, or a vigilante – but also don’t be docile. Jews should respond blow for blow – two blows for every one blow – to every unprovoked attack. It has been painful to watch videos of Jews in Brooklyn being knocked down – and the victim can’t or won’t respond.

In the current environment, Jews have to be vigilant. I dare say that Jews who are walking and talking on their cell phones are easy targets, vulnerable to assault and almost powerless to resist or retaliate. Loss of the cell phone walk and talk is a great sacrifice but an unfortunate necessity until the situation stabilizes. (It also helps you avoid walking into other people or oncoming traffic.)

The spirit of Chanuka was the capacity of a small group of Jews to rise up in righteous indignation and fight back against our oppressors. It was not all latkes and jelly doughnuts. We are not protected by organizations that pride themselves on counting the number of attacks on Jews, and actively oppose the self-defense measures that could increase our sense of security. The Torah demands that we act in our own defense, as the Jews in Monsey did several nights ago.

But we have to reckon with another phenomenon as well. The white supremacists who attacked Jews in Poway and Pittsburgh are fringe actors who enjoy no support from mainstream society. Their hatred is boundless, unassuageable, and they threaten not only Jews and blacks but American society generally.

The recent attacks against Jews that did not originate with white supremacists or neo-Nazis are inexplicable. There is no rational reason why these black Americans, random or not, should be attacking Jews. Blacks have prospered under the Trump economy as never before. Black unemployment is at an all-time low and black businesses have thrived. Black support for Trump is growing, even as the fatherlessness of the average black home remains pervasive, troubling and the cause of much mischief. None of this explains why some would therefore just attack Jews.

If it is inexplicable, then that too is teaching us something. Every galut ends. That is the first reality of Jewish history. The second reality of Jewish history is that each inhabitant of a particular galut has denied the first reality that every galut ends, until it has been too late. If this rash of violence against Jews could be attributed to a particular cause – we did X or Y and brought it on ourselves – then we would comfort ourselves by saying that if we just stop doing X or Y, then the danger will pass and this galut will continue as before.

When the aggression is inexplicable, we have to look for the source elsewhere. I am not a prophet – but I do know that this galut will end as all the others have ended. That is a simple truth of Torah. Is anyone confident that the United States ten years from now will be the same as it is today – more united, peaceful and prosperous? (The US today is relatively peaceful and prosperous but not at all united.) Will it more supportive of Jews or of Israel? Or will it be more divided, spiteful, and debt-ridden, with each group competing for tinier shares in a smaller pie of resources, with some imposing its amoral notions on all others, with growing disenchantment of those who see the America they knew slipping away from them, and with the looming day of reckoning because of the deficit that now exceeds $22 trillion and is unstoppable?

When this galut ends, it will be possible to trace back the steps that led to its decline and its inhospitability to Jews. The signs are there, as is the land of Israel that beckons all of us.

Perhaps that is the only conclusion that makes any sense. Are we ready to draw those conclusions? Or will we content ourselves with prayer vigils, politician’s clichés, barricades and security enhancements and deflecting words?

Those are the good questions that should be uppermost in the minds of Jews as we endure the current storm of weapons and words.