Ask The Rabbi, Part 8

Last year, 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 eighth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

If parents disagree with something their child learned in school, should they say something? Or is it better for them to bite their lip and say nothing?

In our world, especially, it is unrealistic to expect most parents to be their children’s official teachers. Nevertheless, parents must never abdicate their primary responsibility for their children’s education. We are taught “and you will teach your children to speak of them [words of Torah]” (Devarim 11:19) and the Gemara (Bava Batra 21a) underscores that formal schools were secondary alternatives to parental instruction. Too often parents fully delegate this vital role and forfeit the opportunity to be the main religious influences in their children’s lives.

That being said, there are caveats to this assertion. There are occasions when children learn in school ideas, values, or practices that their parents, either from ignorance or laxity, do not embrace. It is surely harmful for children to simply hear from their parents that “we don’t have to do that,” as that will engender in the child’s mind that what is taught in school is optional and unserious. Conversely, it would be proper for parents who follow halacha meticulously to inform their children that they do not accept a particular chumrah (stringency) that the school has taught, or to engage college children so as to rectify the harmful indoctrination that is prevalent today on many college campuses.

And parents must always convey any disagreement with teachers respectfully and substantively. They should be able to show chapter and verse where and why they disagree but also underscore to the children the need for tolerance and reverence for individuals with whom we do not share a complete identity of thought and opinion. There are different and valid approaches to a variety of issues in Jewish life – Israel, Aliya, Talmud Torah, earning a living, etc. Parents are obligated to transmit their Torah value system to their children.

Biting lips will only cause soreness. Polite disagreement will complement the educational role of the school and fulfill the parents’ responsibilities.

How would you advise fulfilling the mitzvah of “you shall surely rebuke your fellow”?   Perhaps due to America’s “live and let live attitude,” many Jews feel uncomfortable fulfilling this mitzvah — even when their motives are pure and even when the person is open to rebuke. 

What is perceived today as “uncomfortable” has always been uncomfortable. Already 2000 years ago, the Gemara (Arachin 16b) stated – categorically – that there was no one in that generation who could give or accept reproof. Things have not changed much since the time of Rebbi Akiva or Rebbi Tarfon. It is the special person who can reprimand someone properly and effectively – and who can listen with an open mind and accept such criticism. Yet, tochacha is one of the 613 commandments. So how can it be done – and why should it still be done?

Perhaps it would help to redefine the mitzvah. We perceive tochacha as the admonitions of judgmental scolds who think they must be perfect and therefore can deign to tell us what to do. But that is pure defensiveness on the part people who must think they are flawless. Tochacha, in fact, is reproof – but reproof is rooted in the word “proof,” just like tochacha is rooted in the word “le’hochiach,” to prove something. Tochacha should never be intended to knock people down but rather to build them to up – to prove to them, gently and respectfully, the error of their ways and the harm they are causing to themselves.

This type of reproof is based on the notion that we are all responsible for each other and thus we cannot simply abstain. We are all one family that seeks the best for each other. If done with love, and privately, the target of the tochacha should be much more responsive.

The complicating factor today is not the perceived arrogance or nosiness of the critic but the pervasive moral relativity. “Live and let live” has morphed into the denial of any sense of objective right or wrong, and even truth or falsehood. The Torah Jew unequivocally dissents from that notion – and proves it by giving and accepting reproofs in an appropriate and loving way.

Should rabbis recommend that people vote for a particular candidate?

For a purist, the answer would be “no,” for practical, spiritual and psychological reasons. Rabbis do not inherently have any particular expertise in politics. Being perceived as just another partisan activist diminishes a rabbi’s spiritual stature, and could make him look foolish and hypocritical if his preferred candidate is actually an unprincipled, corrupt hack who promises and promises, takes our votes and then legislates against the community’s interests. It can be divisive, embedding the rabbi on one side of our overheated, polarized society. I never did it from the pulpit, which is not to say that I didn’t make my views known via a timely quip or barb directed for or against a candidate.

Decades of misunderstanding of American law inhibited rabbis from directly addressing the acceptability of certain candidates, something which never deterred black churches or clergymen from hosting, endorsing, campaigning for and insisting that parishioners vote as they recommend. And it is quite common in Israel for rabbis to endorse politicians and even guarantee divine blessings and eternal reward to those who abide by their wishes. Neither approach is particularly sensible.

Yet, people often asked me privately how I was voting in a particular election and I always shared my opinions and reasons. Politics, after all, is the pursuit of policies that further society’s ultimate objectives and interests, and surely that must be informed by the values and morality of the Torah. And when Jewish interests would be adversely affected by the elevation of one candidate to power, or Jews would be deemed insufficiently grateful if they didn’t vote for a politician who has been most responsive to our causes, a rabbi must find a way to make that known.

Explicit endorsements can be thorny, unwise and imprudent. Usually, subtlety is more effective. When warranted, it is critical not to remain silent about public matters or personalities that affect Jewish life.

Ask the Rabbi, Part 7

Last year, 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 seventh selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

May one enjoy good food or is the ideal to not care what one eats as long as it gives one strength to serve Hashem?

     The primary goal of all physical activity is to strengthen and preserve our bodies for higher purposes. Rambam (Hilchot De’ot 3:2) underscores that all our actions must be l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. Thus, “when we eat or drink…we should take to heart that the purpose is not just pleasure, such that we only eat or drink what is sweet to the palate…but rather that we are doing it only to strengthen our bodies and limbs. As such we should not eat everything the appetite desires like a dog or donkey [would] but eat healthful foods and eschew harmful foods…”

     To overemphasize the ancillary aspects of food – taste, flavor, presentation, etiquette, matching exotic wines to a particular entrée – is to indulge in animalistic acts but in a more sophisticated manner. It is certainly not the highest expression of human endeavor, which lies in the world of thought, moral choices and pursuit of knowledge of G-d. Man is defined as a baal sechel, an intellectual creature, and not a more refined beast.

     Yet, even the Rambam refers to indulging only (bilvad) for pleasure-seeking. We are not prohibited from enjoying ourselves (some of the baalei musar would disagree). The Yerushalmi (end of Kiddushin) states that we will have to give account for everything our eyes saw in this world but did not consume. The prohibition is to benefit from the world without a bracha, without acknowledging G-d’s beneficence.

       There are some righteous people, like Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, who live on a sublime plane of existence and seek no pleasure from this world. For us mere mortals, we are allowed to enjoy ourselves, as long as the pleasures are permitted and appropriate. But they must always be a means to the end, and never the objective per se. That terrain is very difficult to navigate; it is, though, the test of life.

Is trying to reconcile Torah with current scientific knowledge proper? 

We start with three premises: first, that the Giver of the Torah is also the Creator of the universe; second, that, as such, no true conflict between Torah and science can exist; and third, that Torah and science are distinct disciplines that are designed to explain disparate facets of the world. The Torah teaches us the “why” of the world – why we exist, what G-d’s purposes in creation were, and by what divine moral code we are supposed to live. Science teaches us the “what” of the universe – how the universe operates and how its various forces can be understood and even harnessed for the benefit of human beings. While science thus is amoral, the Torah is the ultimate morality.

Yet, as both disciplines share the same Author, and as man is obligated to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it” (Breisheet 1:28), it is both natural and proper to study how science accords with the Torah. It seems better to ask whether it is proper to reconcile current scientific knowledge with Torah than the converse. This approach is more enlightening and edifying, as scientific conclusions are constantly amended when previous theories are upended while the words of the Torah are both immutable and infinite in their wisdom.

From the Rambam’s understanding of the universe as delineated in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah (chapters 3-4), it is clear that thinking man is required to utilize the scientific knowledge of the day in order to elucidate different aspects of Torah and even (for the cognoscenti) to better understand creation itself, even if that knowledge will change in each generation. It is astonishing how the language of the Torah can accommodate different theories, underscoring that the Torah is not meant to teach science or history – but morality

What should one do if one hears about persecution of a people in a foreign land?

   Years ago, an earnest young woman from our shul asked me to announce a forthcoming rally to protest the horrific genocide in Darfur. When I asked the purpose of the rally, she said it was “to raise awareness.”

   “And having raised awareness,” I asked, “what is the next step? Do you support the deployment of American troops to halt the massacres?” She answered: “Absolutely not.” (It was during the Bush years).“I don’t want US troops deployed anywhere in the world.”

    “So,” I continued, “having raised awareness, what do you hope to accomplish? What are your policy goals?” “None yet,” she answered. To which I responded, “When you figure out what you want to do, I’ll be happy to endorse the rally.”

    The suffering of innocents across the world is often accompanied by a barrage of clichés, platitudes and bromides, some designed to assuage the consciences of the protesters, others intended as mere virtue-signaling, but little that actually thwarts evil and liberates the persecuted. The rasha has a distinct advantage as those who aspire to goodness cannot fight injustice across the globe.

     Words cannot save the victims but sometimes they can redeem our humanity. I know of no effective measures to fight evil other than the application of righteous and overwhelming military force against the perpetrators. We should support that use of force, which is not to say that the United States or any other country has the obligation to intervene everywhere. We should mindful of how hollow our criticism would be of those who did not rescue Jews during the Holocaust if we ourselves do not volunteer to rescue other endangered peoples.

    The least we can do is daven for them, as we pray for the peace of all nations on the Yamim Noraim, and remind ourselves that “chaviv adam she’nivra b’tzelem,” all mankind is precious as we were all created in the image of G-d. We can care, grieve, speak out, refuse to relegate these stories to the “way of the world,” raise money, demand protective action, and punishment for the perpetrators.

An Open Letter: American-Israelis for Trump

      Here are four compelling reasons why American-Israelis should vote for Donald Trump’s re-election – and why it matters.

       First, it should be obvious that gratitude is a fundamental Jewish virtue and, for that reason alone, the simple gesture of voting to re-elect the most pro-Israel president in history should suffice. But concomitant with gratitude should be the realization that President Trump has incorporated Israel’s best interests into American domestic and foreign policy to an unprecedented degree. Thus – a partial list follows – he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy there; he recognized the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory and the legality of Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria; he pulled America out of the Iran nuclear deal and orchestrated peace treaties between Israel and two Gulf States, with others apparently in the works; he closed the PLO mission in Washington and halted aid to the Palestine Authority, recognizing that American taxpayer dollars were being diverted to fund the PA’s “pay for slay” travesty; he unequivocally defended Israeli in the United Nations and other international forums, and worked to undo the lasting damage of the anti-Israel resolution spearheaded by the American government in the waning days of the Obama-Biden administration that declared, among other things, that the Western Wall is Arab territory; he has repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, and became the only president to sign an Executive Order combating anti-Semitism on college campuses (where it is rampant in America) and threatened to freeze federal funds to colleges that don’t protect Jews from discrimination on campus. The list goes on.

     And he did all this without receiving or expecting any significant support from liberal American Jews. Thus, President Trump has derived no political benefit from Jews for his staunch support of Israel.

      Second, a strong America benefits Israel as it keeps American and Israeli adversaries, including Iran, at bay. President Trump has articulated a belief in the smart but limited projection of American military power and he has forcefully applied economic sanctions to a number of countries engaged in acts of global destabilization. This “America First” policy – which greatly advantages Israel as well – contrasts sharply with the globalist view of the Obama-Biden administration and others which sub-contracted American influence to neutral or hostile elements and emboldened rogue nations to perpetrate acts of evil with impunity. One need only recall the days of kowtowing to Iran and subsidizing its terror operations, of drawing red lines in the sand that were erased the moment they were crossed, and acquiescing in the conquest by major powers of adjacent territories to realize the inherent danger of a return to those policies, all of which will occur in a Biden-Harris administration.

       Third, it is high time for Israelis to explicitly acknowledge the influence of American political and cultural norms in Israeli life. One clear example, not often remarked upon, makes the point. The High Court of Justice in Israel began operating as a super-legislature in the 1970’s, and the Aharon Barak tenure as President (beginning in the 1990’s) ushered in an era in which the High Court grants itself jurisdiction over everything it deems appropriate, without any limits on standing or justiciability. Thus the High Court sits in judgment on Knesset laws, government decisions and administrative rulings, without any grounding in statute but simply based on the predilections of the justices. The Court vehemently resists any limitations on its powers or even its composition.

     Justice Barak and his successors admittedly drew inspiration from the activist United States Supreme Courts of Earl Warren and Warren Burger, which also derogated to themselves authority to read into the American Constitution clauses that were not there in order to enshrine as law their own policy preferences.  The US Supreme Court has attempted, in recent years, to revert to a more constitutionally appropriate role interpreting and applying the will of America’s foundational documents. That has not been an easy nor altogether successful enterprise, as it is difficult for any institution to relinquish power it has claimed for itself. But it is slowly changing, and that is due to the incumbent American president.

     President Trump has appointed and continues to appoint Supreme Court justices and federal judges who adhere to a more limited, originalist philosophy. Such can only have a positive influence on jurisprudence in Israel and rein in the High Court’s excesses. Conversely, an American judicial system whose judges are appointed by a President Biden will encourage even more unbridled activism by the High Court here that will further erode Israeli democracy and make the Knesset almost irrelevant.  Judicial norms in democracies have to be revised and it starts in the United States. What happens in America – the trends that are unleashed or stifled there – has a tremendous effect on life here in Israel.

     Finally, and apropos of that, a victory for President Trump would greatly weaken the “cancel culture” promoted by progressives in America that seeks to destroy individuals whose words or actions simply offend them. This “cancel culture” is today routinely accompanied by attacks on freedom of speech, assembly and worship. It attempts to silence any voices that dissent from the orthodoxy proposed by the critics. To an immeasurable extent, President Trump stands in the way of the “cancel culture,” even as Joe Biden is a beneficiary and even an unwitting advocate for it. Israelis who are accustomed to these freedoms, and quite aware these days of how easy it is for government or social entities to repress them, should take note. A vote for Biden will bolster every negative social trend in America, and those will arrive on our shores more swiftly than we can imagine.

     All American-Israelis should therefore vote.  It is especially important for second-generation American Israelis to vote. Having been born and raised in Israel, they may think that what happens in the United States little affects them. That is not true. If anything, we have seen under the first Trump administration the glorious advantages of having an unabashedly pro-Israel administration, one that advocates for traditional values and freedoms and perceives Israel as a partner, friend and ally.

      We should not take that for granted because we will rue the day if and when it is no longer the case. It is our duty as Israelis and Americans to vote for President Trump whose policies have strengthened both the United States of America and the nation of Israel.

The Inconceivables

         Those who lament the rancor, pettiness, name-calling and puerility of the presidential debate (I am among them) should realize that this nastiness has existed for several decades and pervades election campaigns at all levels, and especially targets people nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court by Republican presidents. It is not ending anytime soon. Gone are the days when politicians bickered by day and drank together in the evening. President Trump doesn’t drink.

        It is inconceivable that the President should win re-election, and I write that as an unabashed supporter. Most indicators point towards his defeat, even if his policies have been a boon to the American economy and a boost to its spirit. President Trump certainly has a compelling case to make for his re-election but he is often not the person best equipped to make that case.

        Unfairly, he will be blamed for the pandemic’s havoc in American life and its high death toll. No one really knows what to do; there is no panacea. Israel is now locked down for two weeks, one month, two months – no one knows for how long or why anything should be different whenever society reopens. Joe Biden’s suggestions were all implemented, and the most effective ones President Trump introduced were the ones Joe Biden opposed. The United States, like Israel, has yet to decide whether it will live with the virus, come what may, or live for the virus, upend civil society, ruin children’s lives, and put life on hold until something that no one can truly anticipate happens.

       Nevertheless, the buck stops with the President, fair or unfair.

       Consequently, pandemic aside, Democrats will tendentiously point to the cold, hard statistics.  They will ignore the Trump boom, record low unemployment, a recovery of manufacturing and improved foreign trade conditions – all before the Coronavirus entered the American bloodstream – and simply advertise this: measuring from the day Trump took office until today, unemployment is way up, manufacturing is way down, the GDP has taken a major hit and the deficit has skyrocketed. Forget the reason and the fine print; those are the cold facts.

       It is inconceivable that President Trump can win re-election with those numbers. And, it should be added, Democrats are more skilled at election cheating than are Republicans (witness the Minnesota Senate race in 2008, four formerly Republican congressional seats in California in 2018, and continued shenanigans in the last year). Democrats will stop at nothing to defeat Donald Trump in 2020. One has to be naïve to believe that fake ballots filled in by the tens of thousands do not already exist in six key swing states, ready to be trotted out a day or two after Election Day, as needed by the Democrats, to be tallied and (oops) tossed out. That alone would make a Trump victory in 2020 even more shocking than in 2016.

      And yet, it is inconceivable that Joe Biden can be elected president of the United States. It seems patently clear that his mind is no longer sharp, and his verbal and intellectual stumbles are conspicuous. He has had a lackluster career – literally, a career politician – without any

significant or enduring accomplishment as a Senator (unless you consider his inauguration of the execrable custom of persecuting, in personally degrading terms, Supreme Court nominees of Republican presidents, which he did as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman by the borking of Robert Bork and the high-tech lynching of Clarence Thomas).

      He has run away from major bills he supported (the crime bill and NAFTA of the 1990’s) and, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote, Biden has been on the wrong side of every major foreign policy decision for the last forty years. While Trump may overwhelm foreign leaders (and others) with his braggadocio, he intimidates them with his unpredictability and shocks them with his unconventionality. Conversely, it is hard to imagine any foreign leader taking Biden seriously, and he has long confused knowing a leader with having any influence or real dialogue with them.

      He is devoid of achievement, essentially winning social promotions every few years, except if you consider that Biden almost singlehandedly put the kibosh on the #Metoo movement as those activists were forced to ignore Biden’s predations. And while both men seem incapable of expressing complete thoughts in grammatically correct sentences, Trump’s mind seems to work too fast, Biden’s too slowly. Biden’s zingers are programmed, his policies an amorphous mush concocted by others and not fully digested by the candidate, and he communicates facts and fictions indiscriminately, and with equal gusto.

      If it is inconceivable that either man should win, what is a voter to do?

      Being a New Yorker myself (born and raised) I always sensed that the rest of the country would have trouble relating to the brashness of a typical New Yorker like Donald Trump. (An ABC executive infamously rejected Seinfeld claiming it was “too New York” and would never resonate elsewhere.) Somehow Trump pulled it off, and I am reminded every few days of Salena Zito’s insightful observation of several years ago that Trump’s enemies take him literally but not seriously, while his supporters take him seriously but not literally.

      Take his policies seriously – and their effect on the America that its citizens love. That is not the America that is incurably racist, born in original sin and hopelessly evil. That is not the America that plays the identity politics games that demand that Biden appoint a “woman of color” as his running mate, and another “woman of color” as a Supreme Court justice – as if people are to be ultimately defined by such external, minor characteristics. Rav Soloveitchik wrote very tellingly that, as opposed to other creatures like animals, “Man…is individually valued. Secularists, who reject man’s metaphysical pretensions, implicitly impair his claims of individual worthiness…If the individual is significant only by virtue of his being part of the collective, then man may be legitimately exploited and abused if it serves some presumed higher social good. This is statism, the total empowerment of the state at the cost of individual liberty.” He might not know or even intend it, but this is Joe Biden’s America.

        Trump’s America is not one that promotes the forced redistribution of wealth, rewards sloth, blackmail and violence and penalizes individual initiative and entrepreneurship. What is Trump’s America? A country that celebrates freedom, especially of speech and worship, rejects the cancel culture created by fascists and respects the value system and moral yearnings of the faith communities. Trump’s America liberates the creative, commercial energies of its citizens, encourages free enterprise, and has greatly expanded the black middle class. Isn’t it racist to consider blacks – as Biden does – permanent wards of the state incapable of self-help? And yet it is Trump who is routinely called a racist because he treats blacks as equals, not as special-needs cases, and has benefited their lives immensely through prison reform and economic opportunity zones. Nonetheless, it is the blacks, like the Jews, who will inexplicably vote for the Democrat whoever he might be and whatever she might say.

       It is unequivocal – beyond debate – that President Trump has been the best president for Jews ever. Ever. Whatever his personal baggage, Trump respects the moral commitment of Torah Jews, has welcomed them into his inner circle and has enacted numerous policies that aid Jews and all people of faith.

    And on Israel? There has been no stauncher ally and friend of Israel than President Trump. He is not just a relative friend, to be compared favorably to the hostility of Obama-Biden who rewarded Iran, effectively subsidized its global terror, and befriended other dictators like Castro. Trump did things that no other President did, most of whom realized that Jews were content with saccharine rhetoric and soothing promises even if they went unfulfilled. The Trump list is long and well known, and partially includes: recognizing Yerushalayim as the capital, moving the embassy, recognizing the Golan Heights and the legality of Israel’s settlements in the heartland of Judea and Samaria, preempting the Iran nuclear deal, backing Israel unequivocally in the United Nations, spearheading peace agreements with other Arab states, marginalizing the Palestine terror entities, defunding them and expelling them from the US and from being players in world and regional diplomacy, etc.

      One former Obama official wrote recently that Trump is really anti-Israel because he has done little to further the two state illusion. Well, if that defines one as anti-Israel, then most Israelis today are anti-Israel as well.

             What to do in an election between two candidates when it is inconceivable that either should win? Buckle up – and vote for the candidate who will strengthen America, its standing in the world, its virtues, its deepest aspirations, and its commitment to individual liberty.