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.

The Banality of Impeachment

One of the most unfortunate consequences of the impetuous rush to impeachment (and acquittal) is the plausible possibility that this nuclear weapon of democracy – the abrogation of the people’ will as expressed at the ballot box by the president’s partisans opponents – will become routinized in the future. For example, the next president who whispers to Russia’s president to tell the Russian autocrat that he will have more flexibility after the election, and so Russia should not rock the boat and make unreasonable demands about missile deployment beforehand, then that president should be impeached for subordinating the nation’s security to his own electoral fortunes.

By the misguided standards of today’s Democrat resisters, a rough overview of American history would indicate that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, LBJ, Reagan, two Bushes and one Obama should all have been impeached. Of course, the only impediments to this happening in the future is not the conduct of the president – probably all could be impeached by this legal yardstick – but the alignment of two indispensable factors in the current imbroglio:  A Democrat House and a fully-aroused left-wing mainstream media. You need both – I presume with justification that Republicans would not act as recklessly (remember that Clinton was admittedly guilty of committing the felony of perjury) and that the mainstream media would defend to the death of honest journalism any Democrat president, whatever he or she did.

So you need both, and here you have both, with the sad result that impeachment itself will have become so mainstreamed – the House indicts with a slim majority, the Senate acquits because it can’t achieve the supermajority needed for conviction – that corrupt presidential behavior is no longer deterred because the impeachment process is perceived as toothless. In such a rabid climate, it is not unforeseeable that impeachment becomes as dull as a Knicks game, and attracts about as much attention.

It is indeed an appalling sign of the decline of American politics and the polarization of society that the US managed only one impeachment process in the first 180 years of its existence – and now three in the last fifty years. Invariably, there will be more to come. The irrational hatred of the resisters, who fear that they will be unable to stop this President’s re-election, will move to the next stage after this failure. Perhaps alleged violations of the defunct emoluments clause will be dredged up. Perhaps the corpse of the Muller investigation will be exhumed again. The dearth of evidence of any crime, any wrongdoing, of anything but politics as usual, will stain American politics for decades. At least the Nixon hearings had John Dean and Alexander Butterfield. Here, third and fourth hand hearsay, and the one person who testified and had listened to the allegedly offensive conversation has been publicly contradicted by several others who were also on the call – but not allowed to testify. If President Trump ran on a commitment to drain the DC swamp, the current impeachment process is compelling proof that the swamp has not yet been drained. Its long term effects remain to be seen.

The bitter paradoxes abound. The Democrats are outraged that military aid to Ukraine was briefly delayed, and termed a threat to US national security, while unconcerned that no military aid was provided to Ukraine under the Obama administration, and when Ukraine most needed it – while Russia conquered Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine.

The Democrats caterwaul over the interference of Ukraine in this election but not the last (that is not even worthy of investigating) – even as the Democrats reached out and hired foreign entities in Russia and Ukraine to fabricate a dossier about a political opponent, even as Democrats regularly interfered in Israel’s elections, and probably those of many other countries, in the past.

The Democrats screech over the intangible benefit Trump might have received from an investigation into the deeds of a political opponent but have squelched an investigation into the tangible benefits Biden and son really did receive, as if, somehow, Joe Biden is immune from investigation for alleged wrongdoing  while he was Vice-President because he is now running for president.

And the Nixon impeachment process actually featured evidence of wrongdoing, including spying on political opponents and journalists, even as Democrats today (like Adam Schiff) try to bolster their case by spying on political opponents and journalists.

All these are applications of the famous Talmudic principle: kawl haposel, b’mumo posel (Kiddushin 70a). Whoever besmirches others does it with their own flaws. Whoever stigmatizes another does it with their own blemish. If only they had the self-awareness to recognize this, it wouldn’t be so catastrophic. But they don’t, and so civil society plunges into chaos and is torn asunder.

How should leaders’ misdeeds be treated? By definition, no one is perfect, and neither king nor president achieves perfection by assuming a political office.  Jewish tradition teaches, in fact, that “fortunate is the generation in which the prince brings offerings for his sins” (Horayot 10b). Not to be able to admit any wrongdoing, and survive the confession, is an inducement not to admit any wrongdoing. Such breeds arrogance, recklessness and a poor cadre of potential leaders.

Can Jewish leaders be impeached? Don Yitzchak Abravanel, who  served the Jew-hating monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, famously said no (Commentary to Devarim 17). All rulers are accepted with their faults and even (strong words!) stand in place of G-d on earth – and such is true even of Gentile rulers. Furthermore, the Jewish ruler is chosen by G-d, so only He can reverse His decision (see Zecharia 11:8).

While there is some validity to the Abravanel’s contentions, most authorities disagreed. Mmonarchs are ratified, and can be deposed, by a decision of the High Court. Thus, the Yerushalmi (Avoda Zara 1:1) suggests that Yeravam feared the Sanhedrin would execute him if he worshipped idols. He encouraged others to sin, but didn’t necessarily sin himself, at least at first. Both Avshalom and Adoniyahu asserted a claim to the monarchy while their father King David was still alive, and even King David deemed himself at least partially deposed during these rebellions (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashana 1:1).

Radak (I Melachim 21:10) and Ralbag (II Shmuel 17:4) both underscore that a corrupt, thieving, violent king could be deposed by the people, and Ralbag (Mishlei 29:4) noted that such a person is not worthy to be called a “king.” It is as if the title disappears, along with his power and authority.

Nevertheless, Rav Naftali Bar-Ilan (in his magisterial “Mishtar u’Medina b’Yisrael”) cautions that the removal of a ruler should be done with great deliberation and reluctance. Even a ruler deemed wicked usually has some merits in other areas, and the judgment as to his ouster must include the overall welfare of the community and kingdom. Even the rapacious King Ahab fared better under these criteria. And often a toppled monarch will be succeeded by someone far worse in character, and great instability and unrest will ensue. Hesitation and multiple stage thinking should be the governing rules, and not just crass politics or fear of another election loss.

It would seem that the Democrat’s objective here – since they know the Senate will not convict and remove – is to create an overwhelming sense of “Trump fatigue” in the electorate, such that people tire of the constant drama, accusations, tweets and anarchy, and are even willing to risk the loss of security, peace and prosperity to achieve several news cycles without the overheated rhetoric of the President’s critics. Who knows? It might work – but it is a long shot and extremely damaging to the polity.

This brings me to the final point, seemingly unrelated but in fact part of the crisis of politics in America: the election cycle is too long because it literally never ends. It makes no sense that candidates spend tens of millions of dollars and drop out before a vote is even cast. Other countries – Britain and Israel (the world’s expert on elections, although not on forming functioning governments) – can carry out the entire process in just several months.

I humbly propose this law: no candidate is allowed to declare his candidacy, and no debates can be held, before January 1 of the presidential election year. This allows a month until the primary voting starts. The drastically-reduced campaign season would have to feature more substance and fewer inane personal attacks on the aspirants. That might even induce a qualified candidate or two to run.

It would at least give the American people a well deserved break from the madness – and banality – that currently grips it.

This President and the Jews

It should not be disputable that President Trump has been the best President that the State of Israel has ever come across, even as it is acknowledged that the job of the American president is not to serve Israel’s needs but those of the United States. Clearly, the President sees America’s interests as aligned with those of Israel to a degree unseen since Israel’s creation. No president has been more supportive and it is difficult to conjure how any president could be more supportive.

Thus, President Trump moved the American embassy to Yerushalayim, executing American law and fulfilling a campaign promise that had been made by two other presidents and then abrogated. He recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital. He cut off funding for the PA because of their tireless support for terror and terrorists and kicked out the PLO from Washington DC. He recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, leading to the founding of a new settlement there called “Trump Heights.” He shares the distinction of having an Israeli community named for him with George (Givat) Washington and Harry (Kfar) Truman. JFK only merited a forest.

Most recently he recognized the legality of Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, reversing a tendentious decision of the Carter administration that had already been rejected by President George W. Bush but reinstated by President Obama. He has provided Israel with steadfast support at the United Nations, in contrast to the shameful denouement of Obama when he gleefully allowed a Security Council resolution to pass declaring Israeli settlements illegal – even denying Israel’s claim over the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount).

President Trump has coordinated with Israel over joint approaches to Iran and has facilitated Israel’s burgeoning relationship with the Arab Gulf states. He has given Israel a free hand in dealing with terror in Judea and Samaria and rockets emanating from Gaza; there are no more hollow calls for restraint, no more evenhandedness between terrorist and terror victims.

Every country has a wish list from every other country with which it has diplomatic relations. Trump has done everything for Israel except build the Third Temple, perhaps because that is not on Israel’s wish list. It is impossible to imagine what more he can do.

Domestically, he has loudly denounced Jew hatred and violence against Jews, and multiple times. (Don’t believe the false Charlottesville narrative, repeatedly debunked.) He has consoled Jews in times of grief and rejoiced with Jews in times of joy. He has filled his administration with Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, and has a comfort level with religious Jews rarely seen in the White House. He has been repaid, if that is the right word, with solid majority support in the Orthodox community – and largely been castigated, rebuked, and disparaged by non-traditional Jews, many more agitated by Trump’s pro-life commitment than his pro-Israel actions.

For sure, there are many Jews who think that his pro-Israel bias is a sham, a balloon that will someday pop and unleash his presumably pent-up anti-Jewish animus. Given his support for Jews and Israel, and the contemptible way most Jews perceive him, I could not blame him – even as I seriously doubt that would ever happen. But if it did (and it won’t) we would have only ourselves to blame, and especially the deplorable role Jews have played in assailing this most pro-Jewish president.

Simply put, the impeachment spectacle has become too Jewish for my taste. Consider: the lead inquisitor on the Intelligence Committee was Adam Schiff and his counterpart on the Judiciary is Gerald Nadler. Both are Jews. The Democrats’ lead counsel on Intelligence was Daniel Goldman; on the Judiciary, Norman Eisen. Both are Jews.

The lead witness proffered by the Intelligence Committee (if the great “presumer” can be called a “witness”) was Ambassador Gordon Sondland. He is Jewish. For good measure, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. The law professor who was most strident opining on Trump’s impeachability, Noah Feldman, is also a Jew. The presidential candidate who asserts that Trump is “the most corrupt president in American history” is Bernie Sanders, a Jew, who is also old enough to have served in the Senate with Warren Harding and who should certainly be familiar with LBJ. There are others. Frankly, it is just too much. Too many Jews are too visible, and for the wrong reasons.

Jews number about one-hundredth of one percent of the world’s population and far less than 2% of the United States population. So how is it that we are so prominent – to my taste, too prominent – in these sham proceedings? And how do we ensure that it is does not redound to the detriment of Jews in the United States and in Israel?

The latter question is especially disquieting because Jews run the risk of being tarred with primary responsibility for the coming impeachment, alienating half the country who are diehard supporters of Trump, realize (and even appreciate, much more than do many Jews) his support for Israel and see these Jews as ungrateful at best and malicious at worst. Perhaps it behooves Jewish supporters of Trump to raise their profile not only so that the President knows (he does) but that his faithful devotees know as well.

The former question is enlightening in nature but frightening in its implications. Our forefather Yaakov was blessed with the reality that Jews would never be bystanders to history but that we would be leaders in every nation in which we lived and prime movers of civilization. That is a gift that we should embrace.

Nonetheless, it is a mistake for Jews to be so front and center in the persecution of this (or probably any) president. It is as if we don’t realize the costs of exile and how no exile has ever ended well for Jews. Ever. One can easily project the tide of American life turning in ways that are deleterious to Jewish interests and hostile to Jews. It is apparent in the anti-Jewish (not just anti-Israel) feelings on campuses, in the escalating contempt for the Bible and its moral notions, and in the current assault on free speech and freedom of worship that is gaining currency in elitist circles as well. It is apparent in the rising number of overt Jew haters in the Democrat Party – still not chastised or censured but, instead, celebrated. If sufficient numbers of Trump supporters become enraged over what they perceive as the disproportionate number of Jews who are Trump haters, then only bad things can come from that.

As it stands now, the attacks on Jews in the United States, from both the right and the left, come from outspoken Trump haters. A discredited, widely denounced but unapologetic Jew hater is already calling the impeachment process a “Jew coup.” We would do well to lower our profile and reduce the number of public Jews suffused in impeachment mania. If Democrats are gung ho on impeaching this President because they fear he will get re-elected, and just want to damage him through this endless legal torture, then surely this land contains a sufficient number of Gentiles who can indulge those whims without involving people whose energies could better be devoted to worthy Torah pursuits.

Yes, Torah pursuits. If only…

And if not, then we risk far more than defeat of this president at the polls. Whoever succeeds him will not be as pro-Israel or pro-Jewish and we will rue that day if it comes.

The First Modern Orthodox Jew: Two Models

Amid all the discussions about Modern Orthodoxy, its past, present, and future, it is perhaps helpful to look at two different paradigms into which Modern Orthodoxy currently divides itself – one positive, and one, well, less so.

One individual grew up in a religious home, so punctilious in its observance of mitzvot and sensitivity to others that he felt stultified. So he moved to the big, bad city and became so respected there that was elevated to leadership, notwithstanding the depravity of the place. He felt better about himself, even tried to maintain some of the observances he had practiced in his family home. Ultimately, he was spared his city’s fate not because of any personal qualities he possessed but solely because of the merit of the home he rejected. That person was Lot.

The contrasts between Lot and his uncle/brother-in-law Avraham were subtle but remarkable nonetheless. Lot could not bear the piety of that home, its insistence on the rigid worship of one G-d and its constant pursuit of virtuous deeds. When he abandoned Avraham, Lot – not atypically as history has played out – went to live in a place that was the antithesis of that home. Sodom was the center of debauchery, lechery, cruelty, and moral perversities. Undoubtedly, Lot concluded that he could live the life of the Sodomite while retaining the trappings of Avraham’s home. He was partially right – and he walked that tightrope in a way that is not unfamiliar to, and might even concern, many of us.

Our Sages pointed out Lot’s moral complexities. He came to Sodom, tried to blend in and eventually rose to prominence. He was appointed a judge in that immoral gutter – meaning he acculturated himself, probably attending college and law school there. Likely, he attended class on Shabbat but without writing or otherwise breaching a Shabbat stricture, and willfully absorbed all the heresy, mockery of religion and defiance of the fundamental moral norms with which he was raised – and he thought it did not affect him because he was on the kosher meal plan. He learned from the scholarly professors at the University of Sodom that G-d doesn’t exist and that His bible and moral laws were man-made, and Lot then must have pitied his poor old uncle who actually believed in G-d and His laws and comported himself accordingly.

Lot participated in the carousing associated with that life while still thinking himself somewhat above it. He made sure that others paid his admission fee to the Friday night frat parties and Saturday football games, and probably davened at least once a day.

Rituals mattered, even if there was little internalization and his heart was not in it. He loved the seder – we even find that he baked matzot for Pesach (Rashi, Breisheet 19:3). That didn’t require a moral sacrifice but just a cultural affinity. Perhaps, at his request, the casinos in Sodom ordered special kosher-for-Passover chips with which he could gamble. He was so at home in Sodom, and so comfortable with his dual life, that he saw no contradiction in his lifestyle and was unaware of any compromises he had made. Spiritually, he was content; professionally, he became a judge (like others could become congressmen, senators, cabinet ministers and ambassadors); but morally, he was bankrupt and, worse, he didn’t even know it. He thought he had it made when in fact he was plunging headlong to his own destruction.

When Lot saw the visiting angels, he rose to greet them, acting on the instincts that had been honed in Avraham’s home (ibid 19:1). He welcomed them in violation of the norms of Sodom – but he also did it in a half-hearted, desultory way. He didn’t run towards them, as Avraham did. He waited to see who they were and only greeted them because they appeared to him as worthy noblemen. He sneaked them into his home, lest his neighbors think poorly of him for this act of kindness. He suggested they lodge overnight without washing their feet first, so others would think they just arrived (ibid 19:2). What Avraham did sincerely, enthusiastically, with a full heart, and as part of his divine service, Lot did superficially, going through the motions, just trying to fulfill the mitzvah with minimum compliance to the technical norms.

And when the knock on the door came by the authorities and his enraged townspeople, Lot offered them his daughters’ virtue as enticement (#Lot-too?) and to demonstrate that his morals really were compatible with those of Sodom, that he really did fit in, and that his professions of piety were all external, just on the surface. He embraced some of the deeds and ceremonies but his heart was elsewhere and his inner spiritual world was non-existent.

Was Lot the first Modern Orthodox Jew? He kept what he kept, nothing more, and resented being judged. He felt that his immersion in the local culture was permissible as long as he committed no overt sins and thus rationalized his conduct as still faithful to his upbringing. Ideology and especially values were secondary to the technical performances that he, for the most part, still observed. And of course he lived in a place where there was no moral authority; indeed, he fled Avraham’s home only because he did not like to be told what to do. He doubtless answered any halachic questions he had by scouring the internet for the psak that he wanted. Eventually, he was saved from Sodom – but he disappeared from Jewish life with a peripheral role (Moav and Ammon) that found its way back to our people centuries later only through G-d’s machinations. But to the world of Avraham, then and there, he was lost.

That is one model of Modern Orthodoxy. There are many who indulge modern society and embrace its values, first thinking that the immoral norms do not affect them and later that those same norms must be part of the world of Torah because, after all, they profess them. They maintain ritually connected, for the most part, and take pride in their children’s accomplishments even if they are conjoined with an abandonment of Torah commitment. It is enough that they observe (or try to observe) a ritual or two – even though their minds, hearts, values and life’s interests are elsewhere, far removed from the world of G-d, Torah, mitzvot, Israel and Jewish destiny. It suffices that they are good people. That model is not unfamiliar to us, and it is unsustainable.

There is a second model of Modern Orthodoxy, one that might be better characterized as Orthodoxy plain and simple and the ideal for which we should strive, and that is the life of Avraham. He wasn’t a recluse nor did he shun or condescend to his neighbors. Indeed, they revered him as “a prince of G-d in our midst” (Breisheet 23:6) even if they could not fully understand or appreciate him. And that is because he struck the proper balance, as Rav Soloveitchik famously explained, of the dual life of “I am a stranger and a resident among you” (ibid 23:4). Avraham knew how to be a resident and good neighbor, to encourage his fellow citizens in pursuit of virtue and to join with them to promote the common good. He supported them, did business with them honestly, welcomed them into his home graciously and even went to war with them. He lived an integrated life, but he also knew the limits of integration.

Avraham participated in his society – but he also knew when he had to segregate himself, when he had to keep his distance, even when he had to sequester himself from them lest their deviances affect himself and his family. Avraham knew the secret of Jewish life in the exile: how to be part of society while still remaining apart from it.

That is the real test of our lives. Modern Orthodoxy, as it is understood today and as the reports from the field filter in, is struggling and in some arenas floundering because it has failed that test and lost that balance – either rejecting any good about the world at large and cloistering itself within the proverbial four ells or tacking its sails to every cultural wind and construing every modern value – i.e., every modern value, without distinction or analysis – as admirable, laudable and worthy of embrace, even if they conflict with or negate basic Torah principles.

We have the model of the fully integrated Lot who eventually disappears in the haze of the aftermath of the great devastation and the model of Avraham, “the stranger and the resident,” whose faithful descendants live until today and merit the divine blessings that are his legacy.

Which model we choose determines our future – as individuals and as a nation.