Land of the Unforgiven

The embarrassing spectacle currently engulfing the United States shows no signs of abating and the descent into anarchy is proceeding. The presumption of guilt, the disregard of judicial process, the contemptuous dismissal of the necessity of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (“proving” it to one’s fans on social media suffices), the flippancy with which reputations are ruined never to be repaired, and the intolerance of those who see only one perspective on anything as legitimate and worthy of being heard all testify to the collapse of the social order.

There is something else that adds to America’s current ills, perhaps the root of it all. It occurred to me while listening last week to Dennis Prager’s radio show. His guest was Rabbi Shmuly Boteach and, for a time, the latter’s protégé Roseanne Barr, the comedienne who fell into disfavor last year for racist remarks she tweeted. As an aside, I have never found her act funny or even mildly interesting, nor watched any of her shows, but Rav Shmuly’s point – well taken – is that America has become a very unforgiving nation. There are people who commit a single moral offense and are considered “one and done.” One social misstep and you become a public pariah. He emphasized that Barr went through the Rambam’s four steps of repentance – she regretted her misdeed, verbalized it, confessed it, and committed to the future, and even donated money to black causes. She seems genuinely contrite – and so, he asked, why have Americans lost the capacity to forgive?

It’s mostly but not entirely true. The lack of forgiveness only pertains when the wronged party is a member of one of the established and celebrated victim classes in America, and when the wrongdoer is a member of the class of official oppressors. The former can do no wrong and the latter can do no right. The former cannot even be challenged and the latter is not allowed a defense. But in general, his claim is true. So what has happened to the concept of forgiveness in America? Are too many people are one and done?

Certainly that situation is lamentable but he didn’t quite explain what has happened, which transcends Roseanne and is certainly harmful to society.

The Talmud (Moed Katan 16b, Avoda Zara 5a) describes King David as the man “who established the discipline of repentance,” such that “if an individual sins, he is told ‘go follow the individual.’”    If the community sins, there is a different protocol for repentance, but if an individual person sins, he is told to heed the example of King David who sinned, confessed, repented and was forgiven. King David is the role model for the repentance of the individual sinner.

There are two reasons why America has lost its capacity to forgive. Firstly, because forgiveness requires that there be recognition of something called “sin,” and that is what is most missing from modern society. There can’t be “sin” because sin requires an objective standard of morality, i.e., G-d and a moral code. Repentance presupposes that there is an awareness of sin. What we have in place of sin are artificial social constructs that are dictated by the cultural elites in order to allocate power to their various favored identity groups.

To give one simple example: make an anti-black comment and you are understandably thrown out of civil society. But make an anti-Jewish comment and you get sympathy, support, votes, acclaim, if not even lionization. Thus, at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, Bill Clinton can sit a few seats from Louis Farrakhan on the dais with nary a negative comment. (If George W. Bush ever sat next to David Duke at any event, we would never hear the end of it.) The outrage is a bit selective; the double standard is obviously hypocritical.

And the notion that there are certain slurs that some groups cannot say while others can is a moral absurdity. That is no longer a quest for morality or civil discourse but a quest for power. There is no greater power exercised over human beings than the power to control their speech. That is the exercise of brute force. But that is now an accepted element of our world, even though no person should indulge in speech that is harmful to others and no person should get a pass based on group identity.

There cannot be forgiveness in a place where there is no concept of sin, and America has lost its fear and even recognition of sin. Real “sin” is mocked and has been driven underground. Instead of sin, we are told that we each have our own truth, our own gauge of right and wrong and good and evil. So how can forgiveness ever be possible?

And there is a second reason as well why America is so unforgiving – and the contrast with the Torah outlook is striking. The dominant ethos in today’s America is that people cannot change. You are who you are, and that is all. Your personality and values at age 5 or 15 will be your personality and values at age 35, 55 and 75. Dr. Freud, take a victory lap: you won. But what a rejection of the possibility of repentance, and what a dark view of man’s potential!

One of the most fundamental principles of Judaism is that people can change. We can change because we have free choice. We can change by learning more Torah, by scrutinizing our personalities, by moving to a different environment, by repenting and by realizing the error of our ways.

Even King David had challenges in life, sins he committed and acts he regretted, but by the end of his life he was a different person. He was no longer the same individual who had his trials when young, even in the early years of his monarchy. That is why he is the paragon of individual repentance. But King David today would be disparaged, demeaned and destroyed for his indiscretions. He would be deemed irredeemable.

Where there is no acceptance of sin, there cannot be forgiveness, and where society denies that people can change, there cannot be repentance. And that has created a sad, bitter, churlish, grumpy, hypocritical – and polarized country. If Jews would ever entertain, much less subscribe to such a philosophy, there would be no point in a Yom Kippur.

But we don’t – and that is why we continue to admire King David, who guides and inspires us until today, and why the world at large, and this troubled society in particular, could benefit from our knowledge, wisdom and moral absolutes.

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Show Trial

Imagine living in a society in which you can be subjected to anonymous allegations of criminal conduct without any supporting facts or circumstances and without being given the opportunity to defend yourself. Then imagine that, in that same society, you are found guilty without being tried, and in which the mere attempt to defend yourself against hazy, unsubstantiated, unproved, unprovable and even scurrilous accusations compounds your guilt in the eyes of the elitist judges who serve at the pleasure of their faceless masters.  The accused “enjoy” the presumption of guilt. The indictment itself is tantamount to conviction; the only variable is the harshness of the punishment.

Such an imagination put the Kafka into “Kafkaesque,” and bears great similarity to the haunted Czech-Jewish author’s “The Trial.” The subject of that harrowing tale, an obscure bank official, was arrested by unknown individuals, charged with crimes but was not privy to the “minor” details of who, what, when, where and why. He does not know his accusers, the nature of the charges against him, and the judges who will adjudicate his fate. His end is predictable, sad, and closer to current reality than we would like to believe.

But change the alleger from anonymous to reluctantly named, another depressing chapter in history presents itself and is most instructive for today.

In the late 1930’s, Josef Stalin orchestrated the Moscow Show Trials, in which thousands of Communist Party leaders – many comrades who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Stalin during the Russian Revolution – were summarily tried, convicted and executed. In addition, millions of Soviet citizens were exiled to Siberia or otherwise murdered by the secret police. It was the great purge during which Stalin removed any potential rival for power and cemented his dictatorial and sadistic control over the Soviet Union. Most of the Jews who were enthusiastic Communists, served the Revolution and became party officials, met their untimely fate at this time without exactly sanctifying G-d’s name. Half the defendants in the very first Show Trial were Jews, and in a bitter irony, many of the Jews who were tried and convicted remained unrepentant Communists, spouting Communist dogma (not Shema Yisrael) with their last breaths.

There were several mass trials but all followed the same basic format. The pretext was that the individuals, whether party officials, bureaucrats, military officers including several marshals, ran afoul of the political correctness of the time. Charges were trumped up, documents forged, interrogations forced, and most of the defendants were coerced into confessions that admitted to something, anything. Those standing trial who attempted to defend themselves, even sometimes by pledging and emphasizing their loyalty to Stalin, were treated even more harshly for they were deemed to be irredeemable. Truth was neither an interest nor an objective.

Guilt was presupposed and foreordained. Those who confessed were executed and those who refused to confess were also executed. The only difference was that those who confessed might succeed in sparing their immediate family members from exile or execution. Those who refused to confess paid the price of their own death, the persecution of their families, and the confiscation of their property. Media condemnation of the accused was routine but obviously corrupt and fraudulent, the media being just another tool of the ruthless state.

And while this mass murder was ongoing, the leftist media in America – led by the New York Times’ Walter Duranty – was praising Stalin as “the greatest living statesmen.”  The Times’ perspicacity remains intact today.

Clearly there was nothing about these trials that even remotely followed legal process or resembled  anything similar to how the law functions in a civilized society. This was “political terror” masquerading as trials, all to achieve the political goals desired by Stalin. His failure to feed his people (the Show Trials followed immediately after the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians, whose food was literally confiscated to feed Russians) or even to attract popular support for any of his policies induced him to purge the party, the state and this world of his enemies. Apparently, mere public shaming of his enemies – modern American style – did not suffice.

The centerpiece of the Show Trials was the public confession, usually extracted after torture and sometimes just a day after insistent claims of innocence.  Typical of this genre was the trial of Nikolai Krestinsky, a member of the Politburo from Lenin’s time and of Jewish origin, who professed his innocence of the charges of loyalty to Trotsky and Trotskyism, and then the next day, had a “change of heart:”

    Krestinsky: Yesterday, under the influence of a momentary keen feeling of false shame, evoked by the atmosphere of the dock and the painful impression created by the public reading of the indictment, which was aggravated by my poor health, I could not bring myself to tell the truth, I could not bring myself to say that I was guilty. And instead of saying, “Yes, I am guilty,” I almost mechanically answered, “No, I am not guilty.”
Vyshinsky: Mechanically?
Krestinsky: In the face of world public opinion, I had not the strength to admit the truth that I had been conducting a Trotskyite struggle all along. I request the Court to register my statement that I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally, and that I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed.

Krestinsky was unceremoniously executed the next day.

The German author Bertolt Brecht captured the moral pretensions of the intellectual Left, dominant then in academic and literary circles and on the ascent again today, and wryly described the victims of Stalinist oppression in a way that should chill every American today: “The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die.” Those were the Soviet show trials.

And these are the natural consequences of the merger of arrogance, intolerance, the politics of personal destruction, the presumption of the guilt of disfavored individuals, the corruption of due process, trial by mob and media and the prevailing assumption that only one political view is moral, acceptable, entitled to a public hearing and allowed in public debate and college classrooms.

Certainly there is a chasm that separates the genocidal purges of Stalin and the petty political games played in America. But the casual way in which lives are destroyed, the utter disregard of the pursuit of truth, and the wanton use of accusations, threats, legislative hearings that are more akin to circuses, and the repeated attempt to terrorize people out of public service strike too familiar a chord.

These are not only polarized times but sad ones as well. Even Kafka would be surprised, and alarmed.

 

The Joy of Teshuva

(First published in the YU Lamdan)

Like many Jews of a certain era, I was reared on stories of the trepidations of the Yamim Noraim – how entire towns in Europe would be terrroized, how people would walk around in apprehension of the approaching Yom Hadin, how every Jew would spend copious amounts of time reckoning with his or her flaws and foibles, how the Baalei Mussar pounded into their adherents the anguish awaiting the unrepentant sinner and his community. I do not doubt the veracity of those accounts but I can state that I do not see it anymore. It is not only that times have changed.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in different ways are both construed as festive days – Rosh Hashana as indicated by Nechemia (8:10) and Yom Kippur as the happiest day of the year (Masechet Taanit 26b). Rav Kook’s primary thesis in Orot Hateshuvah was that repentance is supposed to be joyous, not just the outcome of forgiveness but the entire process of repentance. For sure, this was a new idea, and dissented from the more doleful approach of the Baalei Musar. To Rav Kook’s mind, the teshuvah of joy spoke more closely to the hearts of a modern generation. If repentance is not joyful, something is wrong. How so?

Although repentance is a joyous experience in conception, sin or grappling with sin are not. That is why we omit tachanun on any happy occasion, for it doesn’t mention teshuvah at all but rather the wages of sin. “Merciful and Compassionate One, I sinned before you…Do not chastise me in Your anger…my couch melts because of my tears” (Cf. Tehillim, Chapter 6). There is not a word about repentance, only about the damage wrought by sin. Rav Kook wrote: (Orot Hateshuvah 14:7): “All sadness comes as a result of sin, and repentance illuminates the soul and transforms sadness into happiness.”

If happiness is the natural state of the being living in line with its essential nature, then sadness (meaning frustration, discontent, or unhappiness) can only beset a person because of too many actions, thoughts, or traits that are bad for the soul. When the light of repentance emerges, “the pipelines of pleasure and joy are opened.” To encapsulate this in one famous phrase (Orot Hateshuvah 15:6): “Repentance does not come to make one’s life bitter, but to make it sweeter, more pleasant, more true to itself.”

What is the source of this joy? Repentance is the act of renewal or re-creation. We become different people. We always love what is new, so changing one’s name, deeds, and even locale is all part of the joy of the soul in becoming a new creature. If we don’t actually change our names – and maybe we should! – we can feel born again by changing our deeds, habits, location, and routine and especially when it has us in a spiritual rut, celebrating complacency, mediocrity or worse.

For perfect repentance the soul has to maintain two contradictory forces: trepidation and anguish over sin, and confidence and joy over the good, for it is impossible that man should not find some good, even much good, in himself. But even the anguish is productive, a sign that man is healthy, that he knows something is wrong and needs rectification. That is a good thing.

Rav Kook (Ein Aya, Maaser Sheni) wrote that we always have to keep in mind the magnitude of our obligations to God – to do good, to be good and holy, and to perfect our character. But even though we know we are not perfect, and we are to act humbly and contritely before G-d,  “nonetheless these feelings of inferiority should not predominate so that it tramples on his serenity of soul, and robs him of his joy and happiness in life.”

That is the joy of repentance. It is not just the outcome that we are now “beloved, cherished, close to and a friend of God” (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 7:6) but in the process itself. It requires that we not just to focus on sin but to contemplate what we have done well.

Perhaps the joy of teshuvah can be internalized only when we realize that repentance is not just a return to God but is really a return to our true selves, to our souls before they were tarnished, to our personalities before the world of falsehood started to contort them. At the heart of that repentance is the recognition that we have tremendous powers and capabilities.

Reb Tzadok even wrote (Tzidkat Hatzadik 154) that just like a person has to believe in God, so too he has to believe in himself, to feel that he matters to God and does not toil or live in vain. We have to believe in our spiritual personalities. Even though we might (might?) sin and become repugnant, we still have the potential to become exalted and escape the shackles of our limitations.

So, too, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz emphasized (Sichot Mussar, 26) that a person who believes in himself can uncover powers and potential that hitherto he did not think he possessed.

All these forces – of simchat hanefesh‘ the joy of repentance, the creation of the new personality and the ability to see the good in ourselves – coalesce on Yom Kippur, the day the second set of luchot were given to us and the day the Bet Hamikdash was consecrated (Masechet Taanit 26b). On Yom Kippur,  we were given all the tools through which we serve God, and every year we celebrate those personal and national tools, and polish them anew.

May we use them well, and in the repentance of joy bring about the personal and national redemption of all Israel.

A Time to Seek

(First published in CBY’s “Kehilatenu”)

Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Not for hamburger, fries and a Diet Coke or even a salad and mineral water. And not even thirsty for water, although that is closer to the point. “All who are thirsty should go to the water (Yeshayahu 55:1) on which our Sages expounded “water refers only to Torah” (Masechet Bava Kama 82a). We are a hungry and thirsty people, especially when Elul comes and the New Year is about to begin.

The Gemara (Masechet Shabbat 138b) teaches that there will come a time in the future when the Torah will be forgotten from the Jewish people, as the verse says (Amos 8:12): “Behold the days are coming, G-d says, and I will send a famine to the land. Not a famine for bread and not thirst for water but to hear the word of G-d. And people will wander from sea to sea and north to east to seek G-d’s word – and will not find it.” It sounds like a truly desperate state of affairs; people will not even know what is a divine thought or value or what is considered godly behavior. No scholar will be able to answer definitively questions of Halacha. Can that really happen?

That same Gemara concludes with the statement of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “Heaven forbid that the Torah should ever be forgotten from the people of Israel, as the Torah itself promises “for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants” (Devarim 31:21). What then do the Sages mean when they said that ‘people will wander…to seek G-d’s word and not find it?’ It means that they will not find the practical Halacha and the theoretical teaching in one place.”

If so, doesn’t that also mean that the Torah will be forgotten? How and why does Rabbi Shimon disagree with his colleagues?

Rav Yaakov Shapiro, current Rosh Yeshiva of Mercaz Harav, quoted Rav Kook as saying that Rabbi Shimon is correct. It is inconceivable that the Torah will be forgotten from the Jewish people. That is for the simple reason that as long as there are people who “wander about…to seek G-d’s word” then by definition the Torah is not forgotten. We need to be seekers and searchers. That is the purpose of the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim. Indeed, the very word “Elul” is drawn from the Aramaic root for searching (see Targum, Bamidbar 13:2). We need to overcome our normal complacency, our sense that we have seen it all, heard it all, and know it all, and become hungry and thirsty – for the word of G-d.

On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Moshe was told “carve for yourself” new tablets of the Law – for yourself. The essence of the second set of tablets, the ones that survived, is that they were produced by Moshe’s own hand. They resulted from an inner yearning that he had to come closer to G-d and heal the breach between G-d and the Jewish people. So too, the repentance of this season is always the result of inner arousal – of the sense that something is amiss and needs to be repaired in our relationship with G-d and even with our friends and loved ones. It is the season of seeking. We are all mevakshim.

Thus we say twice daily in Tehillim 27 there is “one thing I ask of G-d, that is what I seek (that I might dwell in the house of G-d).” And we say “I seek your presence, G-d.” I seek Your closeness and Your favor, I seek Your warmth and forgiveness, I seek new opportunities and new challenges, I seek to satisfy my hunger and to slake my thirst – for You.

And isn’t it true that when we sincerely seek G-d then that is when we are most likely to find ourselves – our real personalities and talents, our real commitment, and our real purpose in life? What a blessing to be afforded this opportunity year after year.

“’Seek G-d when He might be found’ – these are the ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippurim (Masechet Rosh Hashana 18a).” May our quest begin and we find what we seek, and merit Hashem’s blessings for a year of life and good health, prosperity and peace, friendship and holiness, and complete redemption, for us and all Israel.

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Party Line

It is not an easy time to be a Jewish Democrat or a Democratic Jew, depending on which facet of identity is considered primary or secondary. For almost a century, most Jews have considered membership in the Democrat Party to be part of their birthright and a natural expression of their Jewishness, and this from a time when Jews were much more knowledgeable and committed to Torah, Mitzvot, Jewish values and Jewish ideas. These days too many Jews just assume that whatever policies or values are espoused by Democrats or the Party platform must (or should) be Jewish, clear and concise expressions of Torah truth.

To be sure, there was some substance to these claims. Jews felt more at home in a political party that encouraged immigrants and minorities, protected personal freedoms and, especially, supported to some extent Jewish national aspirations in the Land of Israel and under President Truman even recognized the nascent State of Israel. The Democrat Party was home to numerous Jews, especially in Congress and in city politics, and Jews drawn to socialism or least socialist instincts were comfortable in the party of unions and the common man that confronted the party of big business.

Of course, many Jews, especially in New York, were Democrats by default because there was no functioning Republican Party (still generally true). But what if today’s Democrat Party no longer represents those fundamental values, embraces doctrines that are antithetical to Torah, vehemently opposes equality of treatment of public and parochial schools (such that families who send their children to Yeshivot are doubly taxed) and, particularly, has joined Israel’s enemies in opposing the State of Israel, supporting BDS or worse, and seeks to undermine its very viability? This is no longer your grandfather’s Democrat Party.

It has been an oft-repeated shibboleth that support for Israel is and should be bi-partisan, and for many decades that has been true. Indeed, one of the greatest and enduring causes that brought together Republicans and Democrats has been support for the State of Israel. Such still is the recurring theme at every AIPAC conference, and rightly so, even if the claim gets more strained every year. It was always heartwarming to see Dems and Reps who disagree about everything else join together on stage and pledge their support for Israel, and not for votes or money but because they genuinely believed that Israel’s cause was just, its alliance with the United States beneficial for both countries, and their shared values good for the world.

Shall we keep saying that it is still true when we know it not to be true?

While support for Israel in Congress remains largely bi-partisan, the winds of change are blowing – and against the Democrat-Israel alliance. Among the rank and file, a recent poll found that 79% of Republicans support Israel in the regional dispute, while only 27% of Democrats support Israel. That is shocking, and eye-opening, and marks a dramatic shift from even twenty years ago, and probably ten years ago. It should not be hard to remember the debacle at the 2012 Democrat Convention in Los Angeles where a voice vote of the crowd clearly and vociferously opposed the plank asserting that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, only to be overruled by a farcical pronouncement of the chairman. (The crowd also voted against G-d, which makes sense in that context.)

In recent years, Democrat politicians have been emboldened to ally themselves with openly anti-Israel policies and positions and, this year, are fielding a number of candidates, some but not all Muslim, who make no attempt to conceal their contempt for Israel. They pledge to oppose any support for Israel, to undermine the US-Israel alliance and routinely refer to Israel as an apartheid, racist state. While Republicans have had their (small) share of anti-Israel and even Holocaust-denying candidates, they have all been repudiated by the Party and are considered extremists on the fringe who are unwelcome in the mainstream Republican Party. Among the Dems, not only are these avowedly anti-Israel candidates not repudiated, they are also no longer considered to be on the fringe. They are becoming the mainstream of the party and are extremely popular.  For example, the Reps have marginalized and ostracized David Duke and his acolytes while too many Dems pay obeisance to Louis Farrakhan despite his anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish tirades.

Worse, current office-holders like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York unabashedly appear at anti-Israel and pro-BDS forums, with seemingly no consequences. New Jersey’s own Sen. Cory Booker, who already put party above principle by bowing to pressure and endorsing the Obama Iran deal that provided for an Iranian nuclear weapons capability after ten years (if not earlier), was recently photographed with anti-Israel, BDS activists holding a sign that read “From Palestine to Mexico, all walls have got to go.” His later claim that he did not know what the sign said is risible, calling into question his veracity, his judgment or both, all of which should disqualify him from office.

Obviously, for both of them – and others – it is a wise political move. Since the center of gravity in the Democrat Party has shifted to the far left, that is where the votes, financial support, enthusiasm and the party’s moral compass can be found. In today’s Democrat Party, support for Israel has become a losing issue, a victim of the specious dogma of “intersectionality” that propounds that all “victim” groups, however defined, must make common cause with each other, however absurd the consequences. In this bizarre state of affairs, Arabs are always the victims and Israel – having no inherent right to exist in any form – is always the colonial oppressor. (Thus, rallies of radical feminists always include the waving of Palestinian flags and anti-Israel rhetoric, seemingly oblivious to the reality that these same feminists would be tossed from rooftops in Gaza if they ever tried to hold a rally there.)

It is undeniable that younger Democrat politicians have distanced themselves from Israel and Israel’s base of support exists only amongst older Dems (like Pelosi and Hoyer and others), with Josh Gottheimer a notable exception to this trend. Add to this that the Democrat party has become the proponent of policies and moral norms that cannot be reconciled with the Torah or even traditional Judeo-Christian values, one wonders for how long can this instinctive and unquestioning support for the Democrat Party continue in Jewish life? After all, to be a Democrat today means to embrace income redistribution, open immigration, aggressive affirmative action, a diminution of individual religious liberty, an assault on private ownership, sharply increased taxes on the “wealthy,” drastic limitations on free speech and surrender to coercive speech codes, identity politics and a host of other issues that should give any sentient Jew at least some pause.

For most American Jews, alienated from Torah and largely assimilated and intermarried, the Democrat Party is their anchor and even their “spiritual” home. While some might balk at the pervasive anti-Israel bias emanating from their ranks, it is more likely that many of these Jews will turn against Israel to avoid the cognitive dissonance of their party v. their people. To a great extent, that has already happened under the transparent and hollow blather of a “split” between American Jewry and Israel because of (take your pick) conversion, settlements, the Kotel, recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis, the two-state illusion, PM Netanyahu or something else that will occur tomorrow or the day after. The painful reality is that the more assimilated the Jew, the weaker will be his or her affinity for Israel or anything Jewish. This is patently clear to all Israelis except the diehard secular ones who share the same grievances. This is what is unfolding in American Jewish life today and why the Dems have shifted so dramatically in the last decade, certainly aided and abetted by the Obama administration that worked hard to weaken the US-Israel alliance.

And what of Jewish Democrats who are not assimilated and are even Torah observant but are comfortable in that party for a variety of reasons – they are liberal, promote a rigid separation of morality and state, tend to support the welfare state or are just perpetually put off by the Republican Party, with or without, before and after Trump?

They have their work cut out for them. In the best circumstance, they can stand athwart history yelling “stop!” to those who have seized control of their party and moved it away from core Jewish interests. That is not easy to do in the current climate but they have few other options. They could also take a look at the reality before them and draw the natural and appropriate conclusions. Certainly, there are many putative Dems who vote for Reps on occasion, for one reason or another, and that might happen as well. But there is something elevating about Israel being the one bi-partisan issue and it would be appropriate to work for the restoration of that situation.

As it stands now, that is a pipedream. Jewish Democrats or Democrat Jews will have to choose which is the noun and which is the adjective.

 

The Era of Argument

The noted professor Stanley Fish recently published a book, a slim but insightful volume, entitled “Winning Arguments.” Even after concluding the book, I could not determine whether the “Winning” of the title was a gerund (a verb meaning that the book instructed one how to prevail in arguments) or an adjective (that is, which arguments would be the most persuasive in rhetorical combat). And then I realized that it was neither, and that I misconstrued even the word “Argument.” Don’t judge a book by its title, or its cover.

When we think of “arguments” today, it is almost always associated with acrimony, protests, vindictiveness and insolubility. These encompass the riots in the streets, the harassment of people who articulate views that are unpopular with the masses or the advocates who are averse to dialogue and prone to violence, and the sheer inability of people to talk to others with different and certainly opposing views. Even “we agree to disagree” would be a step up in public discourse but a return to that halcyon era seems way off in the future.

The “Arguments” of the title, I think, refer to the classic arguments of yore, advocacy that was free of rancor or insult. A legal argument is typical of the genre. Often judges will say, “we will hear arguments on that matter tomorrow,” which in the current climate would be taken to mean that each side should come prepared to scream, then scream louder, and be bolstered by the boisterous supporters of its side that it had assembled in the audience. Of course, legal arguments mean nothing of the sort but are rather dispassionate discussions of the legal issues at hand in which each side musters all the precedents and logic underlying its case and tries to counter, rationally and orderly, the arguments of the other side.

There was a time when such arguments were not limited to the courtroom but, in fact, people could sit around a table in a social setting, discourse on the issues of the day, enlighten each other, have a free and open exchange of ideas and opinions about life, religion, politics and the like, and remain friends, and even look forward to the next gathering.

Those are the arguments to which Professor Fish refers, and the “Winning,” I assume, means “pleasing, appealing, or charming” rather than “triumphant or unbeatable.” Wouldn’t it be something if we could return to those days when people could have a friendly dialogue, learn from each other, agree to disagree, meet again – rather than fear being ostracized from one’s social circle, rendering one’s children unmarriageable to families of another viewpoint, having water thrown in one’s face, being verbally harassed on the streets, fired from one’s job, and being stalked and maligned as an enemy of society? And those intellectual arguments need not be that much different in kind from domestic or personal arguments – an exchange of views (who’s doing the dishes and who’s taking out the garbage) in which each side’s concerns are heard and addressed.

What, then, is the problem, which, to a large extent, has infiltrated our Torah world as well?

It is largely that modern arguments never end because there is no yardstick that can be employed that will lead definitively to a conclusion. Fish: “We live in a world where God and truth have receded, at least as active, perspicuous presences…absolute authority exists only in a heaven we may someday hope to see…”

We have forfeited the capacity to have reasoned dialogue because G-d’s word has been neglected when it is not altogether being distorted; even truth has been pounded into oblivion. It is not uncommon to hear people today speak of “my truth,” something which is synonymous with their “feelings.” But “feelings” are not truth, by definition subjective, and what we have generally is a passionate exchange of feelings about which there can be no common ground. It is why people – on television and often around tables – just talk past each other, and why we live in “a world of argument.”

To give just one example: we hear repeatedly the famous Torah verse “You should love your neighbor as yourself” used to justify all sorts of things of which the Torah disapproves, because the sentiment expressed is so noble and universal. Yet, one rabbinic explication of the verse is that because we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we have to “choose for him a pleasant mode of execution” (Masechet Sanhedrin 45a and elsewhere).That is, if we must execute someone for a crime, we must choose a mode of execution that causes the least pain. A person guided by feelings might think that a better way of expressing our love for another would be not to execute him at all! But such a person would be devoid of true Torah knowledge and oblivious to the Mesorah. And that is just one example of how G-d’s word can be so trivialized in these modern arguments and truth the first casualty of the rejection of G-d. Loving our neighbors as we do ourselves does not vitiate any of the Torah’s commandments even as it simultaneously influences our performance of many of them.

Towards the end of the book, Fish quotes from another book written twenty years ago by the sociologist Deborah Tannen, always incredibly prescient in her analysis of societal trends. The book was entitled “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words” and it portrayed the impending poisoning of public discourse, in which “your goal is not to listen and understand [but]… to use every tactic in order to win.” People, she wrote, thus “search for the most foolish statement in a generally reasonable treatise, seize upon the weakest example, ignore facts that support your opponent’s views and focus only on those that support yours.”

This is why the word game has become so popular in this genre – finding the one word or phrase than can be construed as offensive and use that as a pretext not to deal with the substance of the contentions that are being raised. It is as obvious as it is phony and hypocritical.

The America of 1998 when Tannen’s book was published was certainly not as polarized as it is today, but the argument culture is alive and devouring us. Witness the people who can no longer talk to each other civilly, friendships that have cooled, relationships that have ended, and all because of this gross incapacity to open one’s mind to the views of another, to agree or disagree pleasantly and to evaluate by the objective barometers given to us – especially in the Torah – what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is contemptible.

Rational arguments are impossible in a world that glorifies the primacy of feelings above all. Where contentions need not be proven by resort to conventional resources (“I don’t have to prove anything; I feel I’m right, I know it in my heart”) then dialogue becomes impossible and we are on the brink of “might makes right.” That can only be followed – and has already been followed – by physical attacks on those with disfavored views, the banning of the expression of certain moral notions in university classrooms, and the creation of an underground where traditional morality can still be taught and discussed out of sight of society’s self-appointed hall monitors and truth suppressors.

Where relativism predominates, true virtue cannot exist. In the wake of its disappearance we find only competing personal “moralities” that cannot enlighten or ennoble anyone. What passes for sophisticated discussion are puerile and vacuous Facebook posts and tweets that sock it to the disfavored.

Jews, whether we admit it or not, live in a binary world. We are presented with the blessing and the curse, with good and evil, with the choice of following or disobeying G-d’s will. Some have forsaken that for lack of faith or the desire to curry favor in the general world, but we abandon that approach at our peril.

There does not appear to be a way out of this morass, short of repentance. Perhaps the only true consolation is the Talmudic statement (Masechet Sanhedrin 98a) that the generation in which the Messiah comes will be either entirely righteous or guilty. It will be a generation in which people simply cannot agree or even dialogue about what is right or wrong or good and evil. The righteous will know they are righteous and have little to do with the evil, and the evil will think they are virtuous and that the so-called righteous are misguided or worse.

If indeed the era of argument is a prelude to the coming of Moshiach, then at least we can (not) enjoy it while it lasts.

 

A Visit to Shechem

It has been 49 years since my first visit to the Tomb of Yosef in the Samarian city of Shechem, called Nablus by the Romans to evoke the Italian city of Naples and obscure its Jewishness. In the ensuing half-century, I have visited Shechem approximately a half-dozen times but not at all in more than 15 years, since the city and its holy site were declared off limits to Jews (in violation of an explicit Arab commitment in the defunct and disastrous Oslo Accords). Until last night.

Accompanied by Elliot Cahan, Director of North American Development for the Yeshivat Hesder in Elon Moreh, a stone’s throw from Shchem (literally), we visited Shechem towards midnight, under cover of darkness and with a heavy military presence. More than a dozen times a year, the IDF opens up the Tomb of Yosef to Jewish visitors – always late at night and always with tight security. It is quite an experience, made even more special by the cool breeze that wafted through the Samarian mountains.

In 1969, still a young child, our family took an Egged bus to Shechem, exited at the Central Bus Station and walked a few blocks to the holy site. It was at high noon and quite routine.

We drove from the center of Israel, turned north at the Tapuach Junction and first traveled through the Arab town of Hawara, a fascinating site in its own right. The town was alive, with a commercial district that was new and vibrant, with exceedingly bright store signs, eateries packed with customers (it was late night, remember) and even some Jews walking around. I was last in Hawara four years ago, when it was drab and non-descript. Now, it looked totally revamped, thanks to the influx of millions of dollars funneled to the region by the Obama administration, which even paid for two sparkling new mosques. (Odd, indeed, that the United States government cannot build a synagogue or church in the US for constitutional reasons but the American taxpayer can fund the building of two mosques in Hawara.)

Aside from that, the town looked so normal that it reinforced my basic notion that many Arabs are not political, and just want to be left alone, and in fact, privately would prefer to be governed by Israel instead of their own corrupt dictators. They enjoy their proximity to the freedom that Israel represents. Alas, they too are often swept up by the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish fervor that too often animates their society. As if to prove the point, the entry into Shechem was a reminder of the stark reality of the Jew-hatred that remains endemic to Arab society.

The ride from Itamar, a large settlement adjacent to Shechem, was as uneventful as any ride can be in a bullet proof van filled with men toting guns. The army presence was pervasive and the operation well organized. Just two blocks from the grave, our van was hit by large stone, which glanced off the thick sides of the vehicle. It was close to midnight, and to myself, I complimented the stone throwers on their work ethic, staying up late to seize the opportunity to stone Jews. The Tomb of Yosef, our Sages taught, was purchased by our patriarch Yaakov, and is thus one of the three places in Israel whose Jewish ownership cannot be denied. Sadly, the Arabs did not get the memo and have refused to examine the deed.

The Tomb of Yosef was destroyed shortly before my previous visit, in the wake of a terrorist attack that left six soldiers dead including Madhat Yusuf, a Druze officer who was allowed to bleed to death by the terrorists who refused to allow medical assistance to arrive for almost six hours and by the IDF commander who refused to order a rescue operation. The tomb and surrounding structure were razed and burnt to the ground.

It has now been rebuilt, refurbished, enlarged and a worthy final resting place for the great son of Yaakov. Over the course of the night, perhaps 1000 Jews came to pray, recite tehilim, and enjoy the ambience of this historic site. Van after van and bus after bus pulled up, depositing its passengers – men, women and children, Hasidic and modern, Jews of all stripes and backgrounds, and all to secure our claim to this territory that resonates with Jewish history. And this despite the fact that outside the tomb there was sporadic gunfire in the distance and the release of tear gas canisters to keep the hostiles at bay.

And perhaps as well to fortify ourselves in these troubled times with the strength of Yosef the Righteous. Yosef is the paragon of self-control in Jewish tradition, the man who had every reason and rationalization to sin and yet remained faithful and chaste. In an era in which self-control is considered a vice and immorality shamelessly parades about in public, Yosef’s lesson is a powerful reminder of human potential and an antidote to human degradation.

It was also Yosef who was so hated by his brothers that they sold him into slavery, and yet was quick to forgive them when he saw the broader picture, the providential role he and they played. In an era in which discord and acrimony are prevalent, Yosef showed us that there can be a better way, that Jews can find unity in our common purposes and objectives in fulfilling G-d’s will as a nation and as individuals.

And Yosef was characteristic of the Jew who benefits the nations of the world, whose wisdom and kindness saved millions even if it was not always appreciated.

I’m not keen on praying at graves, something that attracts many Jews of a different bent. But visiting the graves of heroes and righteous people affords the opportunity to bask in their presence and especially reflect on their lives and what we can learn from them.

The tomb of Yosef in its current state is a reminder of the hatred of our enemies that still deny Jewish history, and especially the necessity to enter only in the middle of the night so as not to provoke the natives even more. But it is also a reminder of the glorious past and the struggles of the present, and contains within it the seeds of the blessings of the future – the blessings of holiness and faith, the blessings of strength of character and moral rectitude, and the blessings of Moshiach ben Yosef who is in the process of rebuilding the material life of Israel and laying the foundation for ultimate redemption.