Ask the Rabbi, Part 11

For over a year, I have participated in an “Ask the Rabbi” panel responding to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. here is the latest installment. This column, including the responses of my colleagues, can be read at Jewishpress.com

Should a Jew avoid living in Germany?  What about doing business there?

There was a period of time right after the Holocaust when there was discussion of imposing a cherem on Germany similar to the one placed on Spain after the Expulsion. It never came to fruition, which is not to say that it would have heeded in any event. And all Jews should live in Israel.

Nonetheless, singling out Germany because of the Holocaust tends to overlook the horrors perpetrated throughout Europe in recent and medieval times. There is hardly a country on that continent that didn’t persecute, torment and expel Jews. German Jew hatred was unique in the magnitude of their evil deeds but it was the culmination and apogee of European Jew hatred of more than a millennium.

Germany today is not the Germany of the Holocaust era. Ironically, there are few places in the world in which the Holocaust is as tangibly felt as it is in Germany. I have visited several times and was overwhelmed by the public manifestation of Holocaust history in, for example, Berlin, which has numerous photographs and exhibitions on its streets. A picture and caption reminds everyone that, here, on this street on this date, this number of Jews were deported to their deaths. This is in addition to the ubiquitous Stolpersteine, brass plates embedded in sidewalks containing the names and dates of deportation of German Jews who lived in the adjacent apartment. I saw these in Berlin and Cologne. Once you grasp what they are, you cannot ignore them. They are eerie reminders of the lives that were brutally ended.

Many young German citizens with whom I’ve spoken feel no guilt over the Holocaust (they didn’t perpetrate it) but they do feel shame that their country should have committed such a horrendous evil. It is not a reason to live there or do business there, but as for the latter, I like reminding people that Am Yisrael Chai. With G-d’s help, our nation survives and thrives.

Is it important to keep kids (who are old enough to come to shul) at their seats for Kerias HaTorah (as opposed to letting them play outside)?

Yes, assuming the premise of the question that the children are old enough to come to shul. Realistically, that age should not be younger than seven or eight years old, and asking a child younger than that to come and sit quietly places him in an awkward position. He is not a mini-adult, and the shul experience for him will be at best boring and at worst will subject him to incessant shushes from the adults in the vicinity. Neither is fair to the child.

Nor is it wise to bring a young child to shul and have him or her play outside. The child might have fun, but shul will always be deemed as the place to go to meet friends and have fun. What is lost is the sense of mora, reverence for the shul as a place of tefilah. Once lost (or worse, never inculcated in the first place), that child becomes an adult who also goes to shul to meet friends, have fun, and throw in a kiddush with liquor and delicacies.

A child who is old enough to feel awe for a shul should come, daven as appropriate, but certainly hear the Torah reading. He will develop a love for it. The parent can prepare questions on the sedra before and have the child find the answers during the Kriah.

Moreover, it is advisable for children from age nine or ten to listen to the Rav’s drasha as well. They will learn about Torah, the world, priorities in Jewish life, and develop a warm bond with their rabbi. Many times young adults have told me that they remembered something I said when they were younger than their teen years that mattered in their lives. Banishing children to groups for the duration of their youth is inadvisable. They will gain enormously from sitting next to their parents and growing spiritually from the shul experience.

Is there anything wrong with taking an animal from the wild and confining it to restricted living quarters?  In other words, are zoos “kosher”?

We should not romanticize life in the wild, which, for animals, is often nasty, brutish and short, to borrow from Thomas Hobbes.  It is true that animals are brought to zoos against their will and do not receive a salary for their efforts. But it is also true that zoos try to replicate the animals’ natural habitat (if only to keep them alive and well) and so they gain a measure of protection they otherwise would not necessarily have.

Additionally, we should not identify with animals, and ask “how would we feel if we were cooped up”? Animals are not “almost humans.” As long as they are treated well, then zoos do not present a moral problem. We maintain that animals were created to serve mankind; they are not our equals in the hierarchy of creation. Zoos bring joy to young and old.

Zoos are not only kosher, but as Chacham Ovadia Yosef pointed out (Yechaveh Daat 3:66), they enable us to marvel at G-d’s creations and sing His praises. It is recorded that the Terumat Hadeshen (in the 1400’s) walked some distance one Shabbat to see two lions that had been brought for display in his city in Austria. He had never seen lions before. Similarly, Chid”a traveled through much of the world and would visit zoos in every city that had one, both to satisfy his innate curiosity and revel in the greatness of G-d’s handiwork.

There are extensive discussions in the poskim as to the appropriate bracha that is recited upon seeing an unusual species or an exceptionally beautiful animal or bird (Meshaneh Habriyot, Shekacha lo b’olamo). The discussions alone underscore the permissibility and usefulness of zoos as well as the importance of visiting them, so that we may sense “How great are Your works, Hashem!” (Tehillim 92:6)

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, NJ and the Israel Representative for the Coalition for Jewish Values.

Ask the Rabbi, Part 10

For over a year, I have participated in an “Ask the Rabbi” panel responding to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. here is the latest installment. This column, including the responses of my colleagues, can be read at Jewishpress.com

Should you read the Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed if you aren’t perplexed?

No one should ever read the Guide for the Perplexed. It has to be studied and pondered. It is certainly not light fare even for scholars.

There has always been an underlying tension regarding the study of philosophy. The Torah life is based primarily on deeds. Mitzvot command us to act or refrain from acting and therein we find the essence of our Avodat Hashem. Can a person be a good Jew having never learned the Guide? I would certainly assume so. There are risks involved in studying philosophy, and particularly the fundamentals of Judaism. An error in this area is more grievous than a physical sin as it touches directly on the status of our souls.

Yet, part of living a complete Jewish life is pursuing knowledge of G-d, and the Guide is one of the treasures of Jewish spiritual life. Understanding, to the limits of our capacities, the nature of G-d, proofs of G-d’s existence, creation, prophecy and other areas shapes our minds and thus our souls. Rambam’s discourses, in Part III, on good and evil and the different classes and purposes of mitzvot are invaluable to every Jew. Generally, Jewish philosophy will introduce us to concepts such as love of G-d, reverence for G-d and unity of G-d that every Jew must know.

One need not be perplexed, just curious, about the world, and certainly it is better to study the Guide with a knowledgeable Rebbi. And if you are not even curious? There is much in the Torah that should be learned and practiced to keep you dutifully occupied for several lifetimes.

It is not for everyone but a grounding in Jewish philosophy enriches the life of the thinking Jew.

What level of priority should a frum Jew give to studying sefarim like KoheletShir Hashirim, and Iyov?

The Torah’s “measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea,” you have to study Iyov (11:9) would know that. As Rabbenu Yona commented (Avot (2:15), there are an infinite number of ideas in the Torah, all of which shape our lives and make us better Avdei Hashem, and a limited amount of time to learn. And the priority also has to be learning Torah “only from a place where [our] heart desires” (Avoda Zara 19a). Each person is drawn to a different part of Torah.

That being said, the neglect of the three sefarim abovementioned is harmful because what each one offers is profound and unique. Aware of this, I spent decades teaching Kohelet and Shir Hashirim (on Succot and Pesach, respectively) completely multiple cycles of both, pasuk by pasuk. I didn’t teach Iyov, which lacks a Yom Tov on which it is read (!), but also because Iyov is more challenging, and for many people, the ideas are uncomfortable.

Kohelet though superficially austere, penetrates the depths of the human psyche, exposes the gamut of fantasies that preoccupy people, and guides us, sometimes gently and other times forcefully, to the proper way to live, serve G-d, and find meaning in life. And Shir Hashirim is a beautiful love song that metaphorically describes the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people, all the vicissitudes of our history, the tenacity of our faith and God’s love for us, and our vision of the future.

As Kohelet leaves us more perceptive about our personal lives, Shir Hashirim leaves us uplifted about our national lives. Those who peruse it only casually lose out tremendously. The same is true of Iyov, more difficult to learn, but indispensable in grounding us in the ultimate reality and our purpose in life. Halacha shapes how we act. These sefarim shape how we think, and thus should be high priority.

Is it appropriate to read works of fantasy – say, Harry Potter, for example?

I have never been a big fan of science fiction, fantasy, or anything related to that genre. I used to joke that if I needed fiction I would read the New York Times, until that ceased being a joke. I cannot therefore claim great familiarity with fantasy works, including Harry Potter, although I have heard that some authorities are uncomfortable with depictions of supernatural powers that border on idolatry. As long as the content is morally appropriate and the values underlying the narrative are positive, fanciful descriptions of otherworldly forces and powers do not concern me.

Generally speaking, and despite my personal aversions, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook wrote favorably of literature and its virtues. Each person is limited in his or her capacity to see the world, understand different cultures and even empathize with different life experiences. It was certainly true before the era of television, movies and the internet but it is still true today in the sense that we can live narrow lives and constrict our vision of the lives of others by choosing only those outlets that reinforce our view of the world.

Rav Kook affirmed that literature gave us a window into the lives of other people whose experiences would otherwise be alien and unknown to us. Thus, those who abstain from reading literature forfeit the opportunity to broaden their vistas and gain from learning from others. It would seem that works of fantasy partake of this dimension, even if to an exaggerated degree, and expand the imagination of the reader in a way that, if the content is wholesome, is intellectually enriching.

Another benefit, especially for young people, is that if these books get them to read, that itself will serve them well when they graduate to more serious works and to Torah scholarship.

Vandalism and its Consequences

     I couldn’t write last week. I was too busy repairing my Jewish space laser. In fact, I was so busy I missed the monthly Zoom meeting of the Elders of Zion. So it goes…

     With the impeachment show trial pending this week, it is important to reiterate one fundamental point. What happened at the Capitol on January 6 was criminal, despicable hooliganism, something intolerable in a civil society. What it was decidedly not was an insurrection or a coup attempt.

     What happened in Myanmar was a coup. (We can only hope the new leaders revert to the name Burma.) The disgraceful attack on the Capitol was vandalism by assorted aggrieved groups. Real insurrection does not involve smiling geeks in body paint, horns and furs, taking selfies and carting off sundry memorabilia. Real insurrection involves the military seizing the head of state and the apparatus of government and declaring itself the new sovereign power. Myanmar was an insurrection; the Capitol riot was a chaotic, pointless, tragic clown show with no discernible goal and only negative achievements for all concerned.

      The strategist Edward Luttwak, who literally wrote the book on this subject (“Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook”) dismissed the notion of this riot as an insurrection, indeed as anything more than angry people venting. And perhaps because that is what American citizens have become accustomed to in the past year, some even garnering much political support for their violent outbursts. Insurrections require committed revolutionaries seizing critical targets, television stations, closing roads and access points, arresting the existing leaders, having defined political goals and leaders, and a plan beyond the initial seizure. The Capitol riots had almost none of that; the seizure of the Wisconsin state capitol building in 2011 that lasted months had more elements but even that wasn’t an insurrection.

     Indeed, one of the crucial elements of an insurrection – the recruitment of the military to secure the gains of the insurrectionists – was completely absent in the Capitol riots.

     Let’s get real. If one wanted to plan an insurrection against the American government – and no one should – the rebels would want to seize the White House, not the Congress.  Thus, as far as I can recall, movies that depict the (temporary) conquest of America always start with the takeover of the White House. Feel free to correct me, but in Superman II, Independence Day, White House Down, Olympus has Fallen, and probably others, it was the White House that was targeted by the invaders, not the Congress. It was the US President who was ordered to “kneel before Zod!” – not the Speaker of the House.

     I have always loved the Capitol, to me one of the most majestic buildings in the world and a staple of Washington’s skyline that can be seen from the ground miles away and from the air even further away. I have been there many times and am always moved by the experience. But Congress is not the symbol of American democracy as much as it is the symbol of American dysfunction. That is why rule by presidential fiat, known as executive orders, has become the primary method of governance in America. That is an unhealthy reality, but reality nonetheless. Congress is a disturbing side show to the real power bases in America. To Congress they come, they get rich, they exempt themselves from laws that bind others, they cling passionately to their positions – but members of Congress do not represent American democracy.

     Of three branches of the American government, the legislative branch is the only one that could be fairly described as broken, chaotic and at this point superfluous. If indeed it would be taken over by a gang of rebels, the average American would not feel its absence.  It is actually quite appropriate that when the Capitol was invaded, Congress was busy with a purely ceremonial and inconsequential activity. The impeachment trial (when removal from office is no longer a possibility) is another demonstration of the uselessness of Congress. The symbol of American democracy? Hardly.

     Congress hasn’t declared a war in eighty years. The Senate confirms presidential appointments – a rubber stamp when the White House and Senate are controlled by the same party, an irritant when the government is divided. Congress’ role in passing budgets and allocating spending has become a joke, recklessly printing money, running up astronomical Greece-like deficits, and showering this funny money on their favored patrons and voting blocs. The whining Congressmen give themselves too much credit in thinking that the vandalism against their place of business was an attack on America. This is what it was – besides the criminal vandalism: an outcry from common citizens against a failed enterprise, one they no longer trust (and with good reason) and one they no longer value. For all their sanctimony, the approval rating for Congress currently hovers around 25%, dramatically increased from the previous month’s 15% rating that itself was just slightly higher than the popularity of the Corona virus.

      You can like or dislike particular presidents, agree or disagree with the policies of Biden, Trump, Obama, Bush and all the others. You can like or dislike particular Supreme Court justices or decisions. But no one can credibly argue that the executive and judicial branches of the American government do not function. They do function. They are consequential. The legislative does not function and is not consequential (except to harm people’s lives through their intrusiveness), and would be the last place to initiate a coup d’État, insurrection, revolt, rebellion, or whatever they wish to call it.

     Congress does represent America as much as it emblemizes America’s current and continuing decay. Of course, there is a Democrat political interest in exacerbating the attack, bad as it was, and using it as a predicate not only to frivolously impeach an ex-President but also to preclude any investigation into the 2020 election. That is a great tactic that is likely to succeed, to the detriment of the American political process. What will not work as effectively is their attempt to label the Republican Party the party of insurrection, an unstated goal of the current impeachment farce, although it will worsen the polarization that is tearing apart American society.

     Intelligent and reasonable people should see through that.  Perhaps, since Congress has much time and not much to do, it should next impeach Woodrow Wilson. Wait – he was a Democrat. Well, then they should finally impeach Nixon and Reagan. After all, many legal scholars will solemnly intone that the Constitution is deliberately ambiguous on whether or not an impeached party must be alive to be tried.

      In the haste to judgment, vitiating all sorts of due process and fairness concerns, one fact about the horrific attack on the Capitol stands out. For all the shrill comparisons to the Arab terror of 9/11, it is odd, isn’t it, how little we know about the attack, even though we think we know a lot.

     For example, how was Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick killed and by whom? No arrests have been made – a stunning situation, one month after the attack, and given the high priority always afforded to the death of law enforcement personnel.  Apparently authorities have backtracked from the initial accusation that he was hit by a fire extinguisher. (The autopsy revealed no blunt trauma to the head.) What if his death was unrelated to the Capitol invasion? Well, that would undermine the Democrat narrative.

     If so, the only person actually killed that day was Ashli Babbitt, which begs these obvious questions:  How was Ashli Babbitt killed? Why was she shot and who shot her? Why is the shooting officer’s name being kept secret? Every time an unarmed person has been shot in the last few years, we know the shooter’s name immediately, along with his social media history. How is it that now we know nothing about this officer? Imagine if George Floyd had been killed and the officer’s name withheld for a month, or longer. But why was she shot in cold blood? That too might undermine the narrative.

     And of the other three people who died (apparently, some did not even enter the Capitol building), one died of a stroke, one of a heart attack, and another of unknown causes. Unknown causes? Surely causes can be found, and if unfortunately people died due to medical conditions unrelated to their visit to Washington, why are they being counted among the victims of January 6? Not everyone who died on September 11, 2001 in New York City died as a result of the Arab terrorist attack.

       Freedom suffers from an incurious media, as does truth and justice. The narrative being offered is false, misleading, hyper-partisan, and shrill, and suppressing any investigation into the events (what role did Antifa play in the Capitol riots?) does a huge disservice to the country, even as it serves the interests of the political class.

      You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to ask questions and demand answers. But answers will not be forthcoming in the current climate of fear, repression, and anger and – what is so typical – the perennial jockeying for the next election.

      Let’s all denounce violence, vandalism, and hooliganism of all sorts, and prosecute criminals to the fullest extent of the law. But let’s not pretend this riot was something other than a riot. A permanent peace cannot be built on a foundation of falsehoods.

Spectacularly Incurious

     Here is a lesson for Americans: Donald Trump  came to drain the swamp and in the end the swamp drained him. His diagnosis was as correct as his cure was ineffectual. Notwithstanding Trump’s self-inflicted wounds that led to his defeat,* the primary organisms that constitute the swamp rose up, used all their nefarious powers, betrayed their professions and sometimes their oaths, and triumphed. And America is the great loser for it. Those two organisms are the media-intelligence complex that makes or breaks people.

      Chuck Schumer said one true thing almost four years ago. He offered that Trump was “really dumb” for challenging the intelligence community (that means mainly FBI and CIA) because “they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” Oh, and did they ever!

      Isn’t it fascinating that President Biden has spoken to several world leaders in the last week – and no one listening saw fit to leak anything? It stands to reason that a certain point, Biden will say something to a world leader that will be newsworthy. (It might be enlightening to hear if he talks coherently, engages in conversation, or simply reads from a text in front of him written by others.) When he says something newsworthy, perhaps even a tad controversial like entertaining a change in US policy or committing to something that Biden does not want publicized, and the details of that conversation are leaked, what do think the reaction would be?

      Here is an educated guess. During the Trump era, the leaker was lionized as a hero whistleblower, protected like an etrog, and celebrated throughout the swamp. It happened almost a half-dozen times. In the Biden administration, such a leaker would be fired, vilified, tarred, feathered, and prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned as a traitor and a dire threat to national security. The same pertains to the loquacious and hypocritical opposition politicians who left the Oval Office and ran directly to the media to reveal the private conversations that took place there. That was the past . Today, if that happened, and the off color language was shared with the mainstream media, the media would not print it, the politician would never be invited back, he would be ostracized and pilloried, with the ultimate goal to end his career posthaste.

      There are dozens of examples of the way in which the intelligence community betrayed their oaths, and fabricated evidence or testimony, and all to take down a president they, for whatever reason, despised. Odd, isn’t it, that during the transition, Biden officials met indirectly with Iran and directly with Canadian authorities to discuss matters of interest – and yet no one raised the evil specter of the Logan Act! Heavens! Nor did the FBI launch a perjury trap investigation of any Biden official questioning their activities during the transition, fishing for information, and seeking to muddy the waters. Well, they tried to get Trump and eventually they did, but at great cost to their credibility and efficiency. For all their so-called vaunted reputation for excellence, the intelligence agencies seemed to know little about the attack on the Capitol on January 6, which reflects poorly on their competence.

     These two organisms (the media-intelligence complex) work together, as an essential tool of the intelligence swamp is feeding damaging information to friendly reporters who then publish it under the rubric of “intelligence sources have revealed…” It doesn’t matter whether the information is true or not because the purpose is not news but character assassination. The anonymous personal attack has become the staple of modern journalism – and no one will ever ascertain the veracity of the information or the identity of the leaker. It is so prevalent that former FBI Director Jim Comey (billed by the media – probably his media source – as “DC’s Boy Scout,” which doesn’t say much for the Boy Scouts) shamelessly admitted leaking classified information to a friend who gave it to a reporter who published it, with, of course, no consequences for anybody. He didn’t even try to hide it once it was uncovered but pretended that, of course, this is normal, we leak all the time.

      Even worse than the sleaze in the intelligence division of the swamp is the corruption and collapse of the free media in America. It is a waste of the First Amendment, as the mainstream media perceived itself as a tool of the resistance under Trump and as the official government press organ under Biden. I remember Watergate quite well, but bear with this analogy.

      There was a little over a year between the burglary at the DNC headquarters in the Watergate building and the damaging testimony before Congress of Nixon’s counsel John Dean – a year and eight days to be precise. Imagine if during that entire year, after the burglary that had involved one member of President Nixon’s re-election campaign team but no evidence had surfaced of presidential involvement, the Washington Post – a Nixon ally (play with me) – just published day after day the single trope that “there is no evidence of any White House connection…” Every time a Democrat raised the issue, the Post slapped him down writing that “this claim is false. There is no evidence of a White House connection.” Imagine if Democrats who suggested an investigation were banned from having their voices heard, their megaphones were cut off, the media stopped interviewing them and they were derided as kooks. And all because, for a year, there was “no evidence of any White House connection.”

     Instead, what journalists did was go out and find the evidence, look for sources, and leave no stone unturned (even occasionally fabricating along the way). They were not content to hear from the White House “there is no evidence,” or that “the alleged criminals have been arrested and their matter is being adjudicated, and so further comment is inappropriate. And by the way, there is no story here.” No, they went out to find the story. That was journalism then.

     An honest, objective person might think that if there are allegations of election fraud, real journalists might actually send reporters to investigate, interview the people who claim to have driven trucks of ballots to far flung locations, inquire why third party observers were unlawfully barred from observing the vote counting in numerous places, hear the stories of individuals who went to the polls and were told they had already voted, ask why counting facilities were closed for several hours overnight after election day (to all but a few workers) and get a cogent explanation why suitcases were being brought into counting facilities during those off hours and why other facilities covered up their windows so outside viewers could not see.

      This is not to say that there was enough fraud to overturn the election – who knows? But it is to wonder how it is that the American media was so spectacularly incurious about the major news story of 2020. Instead, this incurious media kept parroting the official line, all saying “there is no widespread evidence of fraud,” as if they were all singing from the same hymnal. Or, “there was no evidence of fraud that would overturn the election.” Or, “the courts have unanimously concluded there is no proof of anything .”

      Well, by those standards, the courts in 1972 uncovered no evidence of presidential wrongdoing, nor “widespread evidence of dirty tricks,” nor “evidence of anything that would change the election.” Somehow, and for some strange reason, the media was much more inquisitive then, and they went in search of the evidence. Not so here.

     Furthermore, take the Hunter Biden “nothing to see here” media response. There was a time when an honest media would have lapped up such a story of obvious “pay for play” corruption involving the highest levels of government – and during an election campaign in which the same parties were running for high office. Instead, we again heard the “no evidence of any wrongdoing,” “no investigation has reported anything criminal,” and, the best, “that story has been debunked.” How could it have been debunked – it was never bunked in the first place? Again, it was the spectacularly incurious American media that ignored this story in order to remain partisans, faithful denizens of the swamp.

      For sure, there are dozens of other examples, not least of them the weekly drumbeat over the summer of some negative book comment against Trump, what some anonymous scandalmonger claimed Trump said about soldiers or someone about something. None of this was real journalism but just partisan prattling.

      Instead, the suddenly docile American press corps allowed Biden to run a stealth campaign, acquiescing in his avoidance of the media and any free and open verbal exchange.  Everything was choreographed. It was obvious that during the limited times he engaged the media, the questioners and the questions were known to him in advance, and the written answers were in front of him. I am hard pressed to conclude that anything has changed even now that Biden is president. Biden’s health and mental acuity were never investigated or even challenged, something unprecedented in recent American history. It is equally obvious the media is covering for him now as well, fawning over every decision, ignoring his gaffes and noticeable maladies.

      The media do not cover the swamp. They are the swamp. And with the drive underway to suppress all alternate viewpoints or any focused challenged to the Biden administration, a free press has become an oxymoron. They are free to hate Trump, and free to love Biden, but the press historically had a role as the watchdog of government. They are no longer watchdogs but have gone from being attack dogs against Trump to being lap dogs for Biden.

Hunter Biden, whatever he did, will get away with it. The FBI and Justice miscreants – Comey, McCabe, Rosenstein, Strzok, Page, and the others – whatever they did, the alleged lying and the leaking, the plotting and the coup attempt (a real coup), will get away with it. Expect nothing from the Durham investigation. That is how the swamp covers its tracks. It will someday disappear of its own accord, the media will avert its gaze, and the public will never know.

      That is dangerous for many reasons, but primarily because the swamp successfully protected itself and prevailed. Its victory thus deepened the divide between DC and the people, at least many of them. That polarization, blamed on Trump but fed and nurtured by the press for two decades now, long before Trump, will not engender happy outcomes. The future then is less freedom, more suppression, more polarization, and governance by anonymous aides to an enfeebled president, all with their own agendas.